Motmot birds have feathers favored by the Aztec and Maya

We all know the quetzal bird’s tail feathers. These were brought by hand from the cloud forests of Guatemala to kingdoms all around Mesoamerica. The feathers were so valuable that it was forbidden to kill the bird (only permitted to take the tail feathers, on the assumption that they would hopefully grow back). Of course today even this is illegal.

Quetzals also occur in several other cloud forest areas of Mesoamerica and were treasured by the Aztec, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Maya. Would be interesting to learn if the earlier Olmecs also liked bright feather headdresses.

Because the quetzal features are so popular by the emperors of ancient civilizations, we often forget that besides parrots and macaws, there are several other birds whose feathers would have been desired by the ancient elite. Several species of Motmot have feathers so brightly colored that surely they were also traded throughout Mesoamerica for headdresses and other decorations.

So this web page post is to raise interest in preserving the Motmot birds and also the eco-systems that they inhabit.

Turquoise-browed Motmot in the bosque seco parallel to Rio Motagua

Since I work mostly with rare, endangered, and underutilized utilitarian plants of the ancient Maya, I do not as often do research on birds (other than orioles, caciques, and oropendola birds which weave and engineer remarkable nests). So I do not know for sure that this is a turquoise-browed Motmot.

The turquoise-browed Motmot is the national bird of El Salvador and also of Nicaragua. This is all the more documentation that most likely these feathers were estimed by civilizations a thousand years ago.


Click to enlarge bird
Eumomota superciliosa turquoise browed Motmot by Nicholas Hellmuth, Nikon D800E, 60mm prime, f/14, 1/100, ISO 800, February 2 2014, C.A. 9 Km 103 Guatemala.

Feathers of Maya headdresses would be a nice thesis or PhD dissertation

Would be helpful to have an inventory of all feather headdresses in Classic Maya art. And which birds are represented. Plus a list of what zoo-archaeological evidence exists that kings had feather headdresses when they were buried.

The tomb of a member of the royal family that I discovered and excavated at Tikal in 1965 had the remains of a feather headdress. Since the tomb vault had collapsed (plus over a thousand years of rot) obviously the “feathers” were no longer present. But the faint imprint was present.

This was my Harvard undergraduate thesis but I doubt there are any photos since the imprint was so faint and “wispy” that it seemed to disappear once the stones and construction material which had fallen on it in the 9th century were lifted up.

The tomb was Burial 196, Str. 5D-73. This royal burial is named Tomb of the Jade Jaguar. I believe it was the son or brother of Ruler A. Most epigraphers estimate it was Ruler B, but any long-reigning king would have had a larger pyramid plus a temple. Str-5D-73 had no stone temple on top of the 5-terraced pyramid. The pyramid was the same design, same features as that of Temple I (except Temple I was higher, wider, and had a fancy temple on top).

The two burials were also very very similar in layout and contents.

Bibliography on Motmot birds of Mayan areas of Mesoamerica:

We wanted to post this page quickly, so the bibliography will come later. Our bibliography team are working on so many underutilized plants, rare edible fruits of Mesoamerica, that we can’t finish all bibliographies all at once.

Web Sites on Motmot birds of the Bosque Seco
Nice discussion, though tourists should obviously not hold these birds in their hands.

Web Sites on Motmot birds elsewhere
This page is on Aspatha gularis. This helpful web site usually has lots of photos; this page has none, and the 11-year old link to another page with photos is no longer functioning. Nonetheless, Jim Conrad has provided the world with lots of information on flora and fauna of the Mayan areas, especially of Yucatan.

First Posted June 2018

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