The species' physical attributes are legendary. On average, the RQ measures approximately fourteen inches from the top of its head to the base of its tail, a similar size to the common pigeon or magpie. Quetzals, however, are anything but common. The male's spectacular tail Quetzal Feathersplumes, once considered by Mesoamericans as the most precious item on earth, can add up to three feet to the bird's length, and his stunning coloration has contributed to the bird's desirability among humans. His head, neck, chest, back and wings are iridescent blue or green (depending on the light and time of day), with bright red and white under-parts. His head sports a tuft of golden-green feathers, and his beak is yellow. Biologists suspect that this coloration helps the RQ maintain camouflage in his habitat. While he is a visual delight on bright, sunny days, he is extremely elusive on the more common cloudy, wet days. The male's tail plumes are not fully developed until the bird is three years old.

The female RQ's coloration is more subdued than the male's. Her head range from gray to brown, usually with green highlights, and her back and wings are covered with iridescent blue-green feathers similar to the male. The breast is often gray or a muted shade of red, and the beak is black. Young RQs are far less colorful than either gender of the adult bird, and are in fact featherless when they emerge from the egg.

In pre-Hispanic Latin America, the pochteca was a highly respected merchant class that had the primary mission of trading quetzal feathers and other precious goods as far north as what is now Texas and as far south as what is now Nicaragua. Quetzal feathers were reserved for members of the highest nobility, and only the pochteca were allowed to trade them.

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