Gabriel’s Feather – A Plume from the Wing of an Archangel?

From the page: “… The quetzal is indisputably one of the world’s most beautiful species of bird. It is native to Central America, including Mexico and Guatemala, where it was deemed sacred by the Toltecs, Mayans, and Aztecs. Indeed, it is the national symbol of Guatemala even today, and this country’s unit of currency is named after it too. Moreover, if a person stands in front of the mighty 1100-year-old Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan (El Castillo) at Chichen Itza near Cancºn, Mexico, at the base of its staircase, and claps their hands, the pyramid will emit a distinctive chirping echo – but not just any chirp. In 2002, Californian acoustical engineer David Lubman and a team of Mexican researchers revealed that it constituted a precise phonic replica of the quetzal’s call (National Geographic Today, 6 December)! Some researchers, such as Ghent University mechanical construction specialist Dr Nico F. Declercq, have since questioned whether this acoustical anomaly was intentional on the part of the pyramid’s Mayan designers and architects (Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, December 2004), but if not it is surely a formidable coincidence.

Belonging to an exclusively tropical taxonomic order of brightly-plumaged species known as trogons, and sporting a shimmering emerald-green plumage complemented by scarlet underparts, the quetzal is instantly distinguished from all other birds during the breeding season. This is when the male, whose body measures a mere 18 in, grows a quartet of extremely elongate tail plumes, 2-3 ft in length. These undulate as it flies, affording it the appearance of a feathery snake, and inspiring the Aztecs to associate it with their sky god Quetzalcoatl, often portrayed as a green plumed serpent.

Yet despite its flamboyant plumage, the quetzal’s debut within the ornithological literature of the Western world was unexpectedly belated, and controversial too. In 1831, after receiving a description of the quetzal from Duke Paul of Wurtemberg, the eminent French zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier stated that in his opinion this bird’s astonishing tail plumes could not be genuine. Instead, they must have been created artificially, i.e. they were composite feathers, composed of several individual plumes artfully combined together. Interestingly, a skilfully-constructed composite feather is one identity that had already been aired by some naturalists as an explanation for the celebrated feather of Gabriel.

However, ornithologist Dr Pablo de la Llave was well aware of the quetzal’s authenticity, because he had first become acquainted with this spectacular species prior to 1810, from examining over a dozen specimens obtained by natural history expeditions in Central America and maintained in the palace of the Retiro near Madrid. Accordingly, in 1832 he formally christened it Pharomachrus mocinno in the Registro Trimestre (a Mexican journal), honouring Mexican naturalist Dr J.M. Mocino.

Once the quetzal became known in scientific circles, it was inevitable that this species (now known specifically as the resplendent quetzal, thereby distinguishing it from five other, less spectacular quetzal species that lack the long tail feathers of breeding male P. mocinno) would be mooted as a possible explanation for the Gabriel feather. Certainly the breeding male quetzal’s tail plumes are exquisite enough to have inspired speculation, perhaps, by non-zoological theologians as to whether they might conceivably be of divine rather than merely mortal origin.

Moreover, in view of this species’ eyecatching appearance, it is also possible that during the 1500s the Spanish conquistadors brought some preserved quetzal skins or plumes back home with them when they returned to Spain after conquering Mexico (which in those days incorporated Guatemala too). Needless to say, if one of these should thence have found its way into the collections of the newly-built Escorial, then surely we would not need to look any further for an explanation of the Gabriel feather – or would we?…”

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