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Birds of a Feather: Exploring the Acquisition of Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) Tail Coverts in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

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Abstract

The long, iridescent, feathers of the quetzal bird have been recognized as one of the most striking and prevalent appendages of costume from Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, particularly in the region inhabited by the ancient Maya— where quetzal feathers were coveted as high-status goods. This region is home to the Pharomachrus mocinno mocinno, one of two subspecies of Resplendent Quetzal that inhabit Montane Evergreen Forests throughout Central America. Their apprehensive disposition and placid behaviour, combined with their remote environment, made them rare and elusive birds. This rarity undoubtedly impacted the acquisition of quetzal feathers in Pre-Columbian times, and it was likely that knowledge, skill, and planning were necessary to ensure they did not become a scarce resource. This paper offers an insight into the breeding and nesting behaviours of the Pharomachrus mocinno and how these may have affected hunting or collecting strategies of feathers by the ancient Maya.

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Acknowledgments

This paper has been developed from research that was presented at the Fourth Annual Maya at the Lago Conference in North Carolina, and I am grateful to Mat Saunders and Paul Healy for the impetus to carry out this research. I would also like to thank Kitty Emery, Ashley Sharpe, and Katelyn Bishop for providing information about archaeological remains of quetzals, and for sharing their ideas about ancient hunting practices. I am also grateful to Arianne Boileau and two anonymous reviewers for providing helpful insights and edits on an earlier version of this paper.

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Correspondence to Cara Grace Tremain.

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Tremain, C.G. Birds of a Feather: Exploring the Acquisition of Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) Tail Coverts in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Hum Ecol 44, 399–408 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-016-9827-8

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