Long-tailed Birds

Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica


Fork-tailed Flycatcher (male), Belize

Every once in a while I come across a bird with a spectacularly long tail. It happened last month with this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Belize. When the bird flies, his long tail ripples gracefully in the wind.


One day long ago, while I was still in birding classes, I was standing in my mother’s backyard, a suburb near Dallas not far from fields. I looked up and saw a beautiful bird on the telephone lines with the longest tail I had ever seen in my life. Later I was to learn it was the scissor-tailed flycatcher, not uncommon in Texas.


And since then, I have had the pleasure of collecting many beautiful images of birds with lengthy tails.


We were flying down a Mexican highway in a cab one day, when we spotted this jay on the lines. Screeched to a halt.


Black-throated Magpie Jay (male), Mexico


In some long-tailed bird species, only the male has the long tail; in other species, like motmots, both genders have the long tail.


There are numerous evolution theories as to why a species has a long tail. Most theories posit that the male’s long tail is a signal to the female of good breeding foundation.


Some species have cord-like streamers, whereas others, like my favorite the resplendent quetzal, have more of a double ribbon for a tail.


Motmots, a colorful Neotropic bird, have long tails shaped like racquets.


Turquoise-browed Motmot, Costa Rica


This hummingbird has a racquet-tail too.

Booted Racket-tail Hummingbird (male), Peru


One of the most striking birds on the planet, the resplendent quetzal male has a long tail that sparkles in the sunlight. For an hour we watched this male in a Costa Rican mountain rainforest eating avocadoes. Then when he was satiated, he flew on.


We instinctively ran after him, enchanted by the magic, the beauty.


Undulating behind this showy bird, the iridescent tail shimmered and flowed in the most natural ribbon-like spectacle. Eventually the bird disappeared into the forest.


Resplendent Quetzal (male), Costa Rica


In the red-billed tropicbird, the male’s tail streamer is slightly longer than the female’s, about 4.7 inches (12 cm).


We once went to a breeding colony of tropicbirds on the island of Little Tobago in the West Indies. The tropicbirds were competing with frigatebirds over food, and the guide told us that sometimes a frigatebird would pluck at a tropicbird’s long streamers, try to pull it out.


Red-billed Tropicbird, Little Tobago Island, West Indies


Birds that wear party streamers for tails:ย  they make you want to sing and dance and go a little wild.


Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Indian Peacock in Texas


93 thoughts on “Long-tailed Birds

    • Yes, there’s no bird quite as stunning (that I have ever seen) as the resplendent quetzal. Our trip to Costa Rica was founded on getting a look at this relatively rare beauty, and oh how we were rewarded. Many colors and textures, just like you do in your drawings, Sharon. Thanks very much.

  1. It’s always puzzled me why nature would develop something like that. It must take extra effort to pull that through the air. Nature is usually focused upon economy. I wonder if food resources are abundant where those birds live.

    • Well I know that resplendent quetzal sure ate a lot of avocadoes. Such a beautiful and elegant bird, and then a big stone pit would come inelegantly out of his mouth and splat on the forest floor. Nature has so much to offer in so many quirky ways. Great to “see” you today, Craig, always appreciate your visits and comments.

  2. In this tale of tails I most enjoyed the one about the Resplendent Quetzal eating avocados in a Costa Rican rainforest. If I come back as a bird…
    Thanks for this colourful collection, Jet, and I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

    • Really fun to share the “tale of tails” with you, pc, and the memories of the resplendent quetzal in the rainforest. My warmest wishes to you and Mrs. Pc and Scout for another adventurous weekend ahead. Thank you, my friend, so very much.

  3. What a fantastic collection of sightings, Jet. The Resplendent Quetzal is incredible! Kudos to Athena for her captures. Always enlightening to read your nature posts. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • As you can imagine, Athena doesn’t get to see much of the bird while she’s snapping away, so the photos are a great treat to have for many reasons. I’m happy you enjoyed the long-tailed birds today, thank you so much, Jane.

      • I can relate. As a photographer, I force myself to put my camera down and simply look and take it all in. It’s hard to do sometimes. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. What a fabulous array of arrays Jet. There really is something special about those long tails. Even here in the UK where perhaps many of the birds are smaller, we look out eagerly for the long tailed tit and the colourful long plumage of a cock pheasant. I love the tropic bird at the end of your post – is it not similar to the frigate bird you mention, both having that โ€œflick-of-the-penโ€ appearance? Thanks again for fascinating post ๐Ÿ˜Š

    • I am delighted to have entertained you today with the long-tailed birds, Alastair. And I loved hearing about your long-tailed birds in the UK. The tropicbirds are actually quite different than the frigatebirds, but they are both seabirds. Your comments and observations always put a smile on my face, thank you.

    • Yes, isn’t that long-tailed hummingbird a stunner, Jill? They are relatively rare, so I’m glad you enjoyed it. Of course the tail is not nearly as long as some of the other long-tailed birds, but for a tiny hummingbird it’s pretty long. Many thanks!

  5. These are spectacular, Jet, and I’ve only seen a few of them before, so it was a joy to look at all the photos. I’m at the very bottom of the bird-watching chain, meaning I’m interested, but don’t really do much about it at this point other than see what I see at the park or elsewhere. Yesterday, however, was quite something. Besides getting some good shots of a goldfinch (they’re so quick and don’t stay still long, so it can be difficult to get a good shot), I saw what might have been an indigo bunting, but wasn’t able to get the camera focused in time. But what a bright blue! However, I did catch a rather bright red bird which appears to be a scarlet tanager. ๐Ÿ™‚


    • Yes, the long-tailed bird photos date back some years, as these are mostly rare birds. In other words, it took a lifetime to capture these, and not every long-tailed bird I’ve seen got photographed. A pleasure to share them, Anneli, I’m glad you enjoyed them.

    • I looked around for more long-tailed bird info on the internet, and didn’t find much, so I was happy to have picked this relatively unique topic. And I’m delighted you enjoyed the long-tailed birds, Eliza. I, too, adore resplendent quetzals…what’s not to like? lol. Always a joy to connect with you, thank you Eliza.

  6. These birds go to such extremes! The variety and richness of nature and the power of natural selection are amazing. We are so lucky to witness these colorful displays. Great photos as usual!

    • Yes, I agree with you, Bumba, we are so lucky to witness these extraordinary birds and their colorful displays. Thanks so much for your comment, much appreciated.

    • It’s funny you put it that way, Val, “passion for tails,” because as I composed this post, thinking so much about just the tails of birds, I realized there are so many beautiful tails! I had to limit my topic to just the really long ones, because there are some amazing bird tails out there. A joy to hear from you, as always…thank you.

    • I like your writer’s imagination, Jan. I love how exotic the long-tailed birds look in flight, and liked thinking about them, per your suggestion, as dragons. Thanks very much, my friend.

  7. A Gallery of exceptionally beautiful birds! Nature’s artistry at its best! Great post, my friend as always…Take care. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Truly a joy to be able to share these long-tailed beauties with you, HJ. I agree with you, “nature’s artistry at its best.” Thanks so very much, my friend.

  8. Great write-up and pictures and I especially liked the Red-billed Tropicbird. You can even see the red bill in the photo.

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the long-tailed birds post, Bill, it was great to have all those fine photos of Athena’s to highlight. I’m glad you liked the red-billed tropicbird photo, that was a true triumph for Athena. Usually they are miles away, like in Hawaii over the craters, and you’re right, the red bill is impossible to see, and usually the long tail blends into the background. That day we were on the edge of a cliff and every so often they would swoop in close, so Athena was working it pretty vigorously and finally got a good shot. Warmest thanks.

  9. Amazing to have seen all these, Jet, and have such vivid records of the genius that is nature. Thanks so much for sharing ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚ Have a great weekend!

    • How happy I am that you enjoyed the long-tailed birds, Jo, and that I could share them. I like these words of yours, “vivid records of the genius that is nature.” My warms thanks, and wishes for you to have a great weekend too. I’m sure you’re having an adventure.

  10. Neat images of a pretty bird ๐Ÿ™‚ perched on that 1760 volt high leg I hope it’s tail don’t touch the neutral conductor โšก๏ธ ๐Ÿ˜‰ (I’ve been an electrician for 50yrs ๐Ÿ˜‰ )

    • I just loved your comment, Washe Koda, about the electrical wire. You even knew the voltage! Loved knowing you were an electrician for 50 years. I love that photo not only for the long-tailed jay, but the wires and electrical equipment. Even though it’s a modern photo, the electrical equipment is from an older time, very fitting for rural Mexico. Warm thanks!

  11. They DO make us want to go a little wild, don’t they. I, too, got an intro to the long-tailed birds with sightings of scissor-tails. Now I catch the splendor of these tropic brethren in the work that you have shared. Thank you, Jet.

    • I’m so glad you caught the spirit of the post in that last line, Walt. You cannot know how much that uplifts me! Those scissor-tailed flycatchers are so beautiful, aren’t they? I’m glad you have had the joy of seeing them; and may many more cruise past you as you stand anchored in the middle of a river. Warm thanks for this big smile….

  12. Reblogged this on retireediary and commented:
    I like birds with long and beautiful tails but there are very few of them around. Jet Eliot has got some of the very beautiful ones here which deserve more people seeing them . . . . . . . . . .

  13. I love this post. There are a few birds here that I really do want to see some day but until now I hadn’t realized that it is all because of their tail!

    • Yes, I like that David, “all because of their tail” that you want to see a bird. Great comment, thanks so much. I join you in the reverence, and thank you for your visit.

    • We never tire of motmots and quetzals, do we, Cathy? I’m happy this post inspired you to find more long-tailed birds. Thanks so much for your great comment.

  14. What an imaginative theme for this post! I can’t think of any long tailed birds around here. I wonder why? It’s hard to imagine why such an adaptation might be useful in some way. Great narrative and images from the both of you, as usual!

    • Glad you enjoyed the long-tailed birds post, Gunta. And I’m delighted that I got you thinking about the long-tailed birds in the Northwest US. Yes, not too many long-tailed birds in this country, or in this world. Happy I could share them with you, my friend. Thanks so much.

  15. I love all the places you and Athena take your readers, Jet. I will be traveling the the Pacific side of Mexico soon. We will be staying across the river from a bird sanctuary. I will be on the lookout for some long tailed birds there.

  16. My breath got stolen looking at these absolutely stunning birds. WOW, Jet!!! Amazing! If I ever came across birds like that I’d probably be so excited I’d be fumbling with my camera settings. What an excellent post!! Thank you!! Oh how I would love to go to Costa Rica! ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ

  17. Well aren’t they the show offs these long tailed wingers. I can almost see the swagger in their step as they saunter down the bird fashion show runway. All except for the motmots and hummingbirds who are in an intense game of teeny -iny tennis.
    I have to think these long tails must get caught in some interesting situations, no matter how attractive they might be. As always a fascinating post Jet.

    • I so enjoyed your entertaining comment, Sue, from the swaggers to the teeny tennis players. As I have watched and marveled at the long-tailed birds, I too have pondered the tails must get stuck somehow, with all those extra dangling feathers. I waited, but only saw grace. But the long-tailed Jay in Mexico, the black-throated magpie jay had a pretty scruffy tail which made me think there had to be some snafus along the way. Thanks so much for your lovely comment, my friend.

  18. I’ve only ever seen a few long-tailed birds, and it is fun to see photos of the wonderful long-tailed birds you’ve seen. It’s interesting to think about the purpose of the long tails.

    • I’m glad you have had the joy of seeing a few long-tailed birds, Sheryl, and glad the post was thought-provoking for you. My warmest thanks for your visit and comment.

  19. So many beauties! Lovely to hear of and see so many of the long-tailed birds you’ve seen and enjoyed through your birding ‘career.’ And wouldn’t it just be grand to have “Resplendent” in your name???

    • Yes, so many beauties. I’m glad you enjoyed the long-tailed birds, Nan. And the quetzal’s name is completely appropriate, yes, a true delight. Thanks so very much, dear Nan.

    • Both birds you mention here, Bertie, are stunning birds. You have good taste. I’m happy to see your visits today, my friend, thanks so much for stopping by.

  20. The Quetzal is gorgeous, Jet. I watched a Youtube video to see them in flight, and it is something amazing. I also like the elegant Flycatcher. Thank you for the delightful read!

    • I love hearing that you watched a You Tube video to see how the resplendent quetzal flies. It is such a beautiful sight, I’m glad you could see a video. My warmest thanks for your visits today, Inese.

  21. You have been fortunate to see and photograph so many gorgeous long-tail birds! From the first time I saw a picture of a Quetzal on Guatemalan paper money (the currency is even named after it!), I became obsessed with seeing one, but never did the week that I spent there. One day!

    • We booked our entire trip to Costa Rica around finding the resplendent quetzal, and we hired a guide and stayed in the mountains and it was a pretty big deal, because they are not in too many places. So I am happy I could share him with you here, Marsi.

  22. What a great post – and how fortunate you are to have seen so many ‘long-tailed’ birds, Jet and Athena! How I would LOVE to see a Resplendent Quetzal . . . maybe next trip to Costa Rica.

    • I’m very glad you enjoyed the long-tailed birds, BJ. I find them so glorious and elegant. Finding a resplendent quetzal in CR took some effort, because they have a very limited range. Specifically, we stayed at Savegre Mtn. Lodge in the Chiriquรญ Highlands of CR, and saw the RQ in the forest there. Many thanks.

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