El Salvador is a Central American country between Guatemala to the north, Honduras to the east, and Nicaragua to the south. It was inhabited by the ancient Mesoamerican Olmec people around 4000 years ago, and then the Maya, Toltec, and Pipil before the Spanish Conquistadors took over. El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821.
Many countries have a recognized national animal and bird, so what is the national bird of El Salvador?
The national bird of El Salvador is the Turquoise-Browed motmot (Eumomota superciliosa). This beautifully colorful bird is also the national bird of neighboring Nicaragua. In El Salvador, it’s also called the Torogoz. It was legally declared El Salvador’s national bird in 1999.
The Turquoise-Browed motmot is part of the motmots or Momotidae family of birds and is related to the kingfishers, bee-eaters, and rollers. The bird is most common in El Salvador’s mountainous north and is not especially easy to find.
With its bright turquoise, green, orange, yellow and brown plumage and extraordinarily long racketed tail, the Turquoise-Browed motmot is a striking bird.
Both the male and female Turquoise-Browed motmots possess a long tail, unlike most birds with ornate tail plumage where it’s exclusive to the male.
There is much more to learn about this enchanting bird - read on to discover more.
The national bird of El Salvador, the Turquoise-Browed motmot (Eumomota superciliosa)
In El Salvador, the Turquoise-Browed motmot represents the beauty of nature, liberty, and freedom.
Like many Central American birds, the motmot was likely heralded by the Maya and other Mesoamerican people. There is at least one Mayan story that refers to them. The story describes how the motmot was given the duty of waking other birds at sunrise, but one day the bird failed and was stripped of all his tail plumage except the two remaining feathers that dangle at the end.
The two feathers are said to resemble the hands on a clock, hence why the legend is sometimes called “The Legend of the Clock Bird.” These remaining tail feathers served as a warning for the motmot to not forget its duty. The bird is called ájaro reloj, meaning clock bird, in the Yucatán part of Mexico. The motmot’s tail also swings back and forth like a pendulum on a clock, which might have inspired this legend.
In ancient Maya culture, the motmot is called “Toh” and features in several other old legends. The motmot is a member of the kingfisher family who also features in numerous Mesoamerican stories and legends.
Whether or not ancient motmot folklore influenced El Salvador’s decision to declare the motmot their national bird is unclear. But there’s no doubt that this truly beautiful bird is a wonderful choice, even if it was just selected based on its stunning plumage alone.
Turquoise-Browed motmot perched on a tree branch, looking directly forward
The Turquoise-Browed motmot was enshrined into law as El Salvador’s national bird on October 21st, 1999.
However, the bird had special value long before that. Some anecdotal reports on the bird’s status in El Salvador suggest it has been held in high spiritual regard for many generations.
This certainly makes sense, given the Turquoise-Browed motmot had significance to Mayan and other Mesoamerican civilizations. The bird has likely lived on the continent for thousands of years.
The government officially named the Turquoise-Browed motmot as El Salvador’s national bird in 1999.
However, the bird has been significant to El Salvador and much of Central America for thousands of years. The motmot features in several Maya stories and legends.
The Turquoise-Browed motmot is also known as the Torogoz
The Turquoise-Browed motmot represents freedom, independence, and beauty in nature.
While the bird isn’t threatened or endangered across Central America, it’s not especially common in most areas either. For example, in El Salvador, you’re most likely to see one in the mountainous north at the border with Guatemala.
The Turquoise-browed motmot is one of the most flamboyant birds on the planet and is distinct from other motmots in its family, occupying a genus of its own. It has a small range consisting of parts of Mexico - most notably the Yucatan peninsula - and western Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and parts of Honduras and Costa Rica.
There are some seven subspecies of this bird, but each has a similarly beautiful plumage with bright shocks of turquoise and long racket tails. Both males and females possess these flamboyant tails, but the males are slightly brighter.
They’re largely olive-green with cinnamon or rufous belly and darker red patches on the lower abdomen. Some subspecies have brighter yellow parts, whereas others are greener. The brow is turquoise, as their name suggests.
Motmots resemble kingfishers in shape and form and have strong, sharp bills that are ideal for skewering and eating large insects.
A curious Turquoise-Browed Motmot in the rainforest
These motmots are carnivorous/insectivorous and eat various large beetles, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, and some small lizards and snakes. Like kingfishers, motmots are powerful birds with skilled hunting abilities.
These birds live in various forested, arid, and mountainous habitats. They’re particularly common in the arid Motagua Valley in Guatemala, where they’re one of the most numerous birds. They mostly avoid deep rainforests and prefer open grasslands and sparsely foliaged environments.
Close up of a Turquoise-Browed motmot
Like many members of the kingfisher family, Turquoise-Browed motmots nest in cavities that can be as deep as 150cm, but one has been recorded at a remarkable depth of 244cm. They form strong monogamous pair bonds that last for years, if not life. Chicks are incubated and raised by both parents.
While the general population of Turquoise-browed motmots is quite large, numbering between 50,000 to 500,000 breeding pairs, it is thought to be declining. They’re pretty rare to spot in most parts of El Salvador but are much more common in Yucatan.
To see one of these spectacular birds is a special moment. But, if you do see one, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t fly away immediately - they’ve earned the nickname ájaro bobo in Costa Rica, meaning foolish bird, as they don’t easily fly away when provoked by humans.
Turquoise-browed motmots are generally tolerant of humans, and will often not fly off!
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