Elegant or Coppery-tailed Trogons (Trogon elegans) are colorful, tropical and sub-tropical birds found from extreme southeastern Arizona down through Mexico and Central America to Costa Rica. The Elegant Trogons found here in Arizona are the northern subspecies T. elegans canescens.
Elegant Trogons are typically non-migratory, but most of them in southeastern Arizona migrate south for the winter. A few do overwinter every year, and in December of 2008, we spotted this wintering male Elegant Trogon in Patagonia Lake State Park near Patagonia, Arizona. He was quietly perched in a tree along the Sonoita Creek Trail near where the creek joins the lake.
Arizona's Elegant Trogons are medium-sized birds with an upright but hunched-looking posture, a saw-toothed, yellow bill, dark eyes, an orange eye-ring, a white breast band, and a long, square-tipped tail with a finely black-barred white undertail and a characteristic coppery iridescent uppertail. Like other members of the Trogon Family (Trogonidae), Elegant Trogons have heterodactyl feet (the first two toes point backward and the second two toes point forward).
Male Elegant Trogons are iridescent emerald green above with a black face and throat and a bright red belly and undertail-coverts. The less colorful females are mostly grayish brown with a rose-red belly and a white "teardrop" behind each eye. Juveniles look similar to the females, but they have a brownish belly. The other trogon species found here in Arizona, the much rarer Eared Quetzal (Euptilotis neoxenus), lacks the Elegant Trogon's distinctive white breast band and black barring on the undertail.
Although they are colorful with glittering iridescence in sunlight, Elegant Trogons can be difficult to spot because they usually sit quietly in a shady tree where their colors dim and their iridescence becomes a dull black. Their distinctive trogon silhouette and the red belly of the males are what you are most likely to spot. During the breeding season (May to July), Elegant Trogons are vocal and you may be able to locate them by their loud "Ko-ah! Ko-ah! Ko-ah!" calls. Because Elegant Trogons may abandon their nests if disturbed, don't approach them or their nests too closely during this time of year.
Here in southeastern Arizona, Elegant Trogons breed in riparian mountain canyons with Arizona Sycamores (Platanus wrightii) in oak and pine woodlands at elevations generally between 4500 and 7500 feet (1372 and 2286 m). They usually nest in unlined cavities in Arizona Sycamores, and since they can't excavate their own nest holes, they will use abandoned woodpecker holes, especially those of similarly-sized Northern (Red-shafted) Flickers (Colaptes auratus cafer). Although there are only a small number of Elegant Trogons found here in Arizona, in areas of their prime habitat, there may be two pairs of Elegant Trogons per mile (1.6 km) of canyon.
Elegant Trogons tend to be rather sedentary, only occasionally darting out to capture insects and small lizards or to pick berries and fruit like Canyon Grapes (Vitis arizonica). Although they spend much of their time perched quietly, Elegant Trogons don't miss much of what's going on around them because they have both excellent hearing and vision. They can see well even in low light conditions and can rotate their head around to look over their back like an owl.
Because of their beauty and very limited U.S. range, Elegant Trogons are highly sought after by birders visiting southeastern Arizona. Below are some of the best places to see them here:
- Sycamore Canyon in the Atascosa and Pajarito Mountains
- South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains
- Sunnyside Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains
- Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains