Elegant Trogon

Trogon elegans

Male, (c) Hans Speicker
  • Trogon
  • Trogoniformes
  • Trogón Elegante
  • Trogon élégant

At the northern limit of its range, the Elegant Trogon breeds in Arizona's southeastern mountain ranges, the "Madrean sky islands." Colorful and strange tropical birds, trogons perch quietly for long periods. Like owls, they can see in low light and turn their heads through nearly 360 degrees. The Greek "trogon" means gnawer and describes its hefty, serrated bill. Lovely, and rare in the United States, the Elegant Trogon attracts thousands of ecotourists to Arizona each year.

Female, (c) Hans Speicker
Appearance Description
The reclusive Elegant Trogon is a brightly colored parrot-sized bird. It measures about 12.5 inches long with a 16-inch wingspan and weighs 2.5 ounces. The male has a black throat and face, an iridescent green head, breast, and back, and a red belly. A white bar separates the green breast and red belly. The tail is straight-edged and hangs nearly straight down while perched. The tail is copper-green on the upperside with a black tip (hence the former name "Coppery-tailed Trogon") and white on the underside with black speckling. The female has the same pattern, but lacks the green and black (replaced by a gray brown). The belly is a duller red, and the female's face has a white mark in front of the eye and a larger white bar behind the eye. The Elegant Trogon also has a distinctive song that is reminiscent of a Wild Turkey: Ko-ah, Ko-ah.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
In the United States, the Elegant Trogon breeds in several of Arizona's mountain ranges, including the Atascosas, Chiricahuas, and Huachucas. One of five subspecies, the U.S. population (T. e. canescens) may represent a northward range expansion. In the Santa Rita range, Madera Canyon is a birding hotspot, famous for this colorful species. Rare but regular sightings are made in southwestern New Mexico. The Elegant Trogon is a permanent resident from the Western Sierra Madre range in northwestern Mexico to the southern State of Oaxaca. A population also branches through eastern Mexico as far north as Nuevo Léon. In Central America, this trogon occurs from southeastern Guatemala to northwestern Costa Rica.
The Elegant Trogon's habitat is the most varied of any trogon. It uses tropical lowland forests in floodplains, high-elevation riparian woodlands, arid scrublands, woodlands, and temperate upland coniferous forests, anywhere from sea level to over 2000 m. The Elegant Trogon's preference for drier upland sites has made it associated with the Strickland's Woodpecker in Mexico and, in the United States, the Arizona Woodpecker, the latter another Watch List species. In the U.S., the typical surroundings are in canyons along wooded streams and rivers, with pine and oak trees dominated by Arizona sycamore. Nests are built in cavities previously excavated by woodpeckers, usually the Northern Flicker. Most of the canyons are in Madrean sky islands, which are fairly low mountain ranges isolated from each other by desert grasslands and scrub.
The Elegant Trogon sits quietly on a perch beneath the forest canopy and scans for prey, then sallies forth to grasp insects and fruits with its serrated bill. The diet includes many insects and their larvae: caterpillars, cicadas, katydids, walkingsticks, grasshoppers, and beetles. Fruits are picked from chokecherry, birchleaf buckthorne, red pepper, and wild grape. Small lizards are also consumed.
The Elegant Trogon starts nesting between May and July; pairs take a long time to find a suitable nest cavity. With complex songs and aggressive chases, the male trogon attracts a mate and establishes a large territory, usually a half-mile wide. The male's courtship display includes flicking his colorful tail, puffing his red chest, and pursuing the female while softly cooing. The pair cannot excavate their own nest hole and often re-use nests from previous years, most of which were initially made by woodpeckers. Competition over nesting cavities is fierce, and conflict with woodpeckers, owls, and squirrels is common. The male initially chooses a hole about 25 feet above the ground, but the female appears to make the final nest site decision.

In an unlined nest, the female lays 2-3 nearly round, plain white eggs. After 19 days of incubation by the pair, the pink chicks emerge naked, blind, and helpless. Down develops over the next 12 days, as the parents first feed the chicks insects and then fruits, which the parents soften. The calm and quiet chicks roost in one spot for periods as many as three hours. Fledglings attempt their first flights at about three weeks old and continue to be fed for another three weeks.
Only the northern populations of the Elegant Trogon, those in the US and the northernmost parts of Mexico, migrate. These individuals arrive on the breeding range sometime in April and depart in November, probably for lack of food and cold winter temperatures.
  • 200,000
  • 200,000
Population Status Trends
Despite its popularity, the Elegant Trogon has not been carefully censused in the United States, or anywhere else in its range. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it increased after receiving protection from the Arizona Department of Fish and Game in 1940. In the 1980s, local and infrequent counts were made in Arizona, with results ranging from 16 to 75 individuals in one area. Population numbers appear to fluctuate in response to drought and other environmental factors, but conclusions cannot be drawn without a more rigorous, range wide census.
Conservation Issues
After 1885 when it was discovered in Arizona, the bright markings of the Elegant Trogon made it vulnerable to skin and egg collectors and overzealous naturalists. Arizona considers it a Wildlife Species of Concern and in 2006 listed it as eligible for the Landowner Incentive Program, by which the state uses federal funds to support habitat projects for specific species. New Mexico lists this trogon as Endangered, and the U. S. Forest Service considers it a Sensitive Species. Its specific streamside nesting requirements make it susceptible to disturbance and habitat destruction. This riparian habitat can be degraded by development for recreational activities near streams, road maintenance conducted with heavy equipment, camping and hiking in nesting areas, cattle grazing, and general disturbances by woodcutters and road builders.

Repeated use of tapes and human intrusion cause nests to be abandoned. The diversion of water for people and livestock stresses the forested ecosystems and exacerbates drought conditions. Together with lower water tables, grazing cattle can damage the trogon's favored tree, the sycamore. The Arizona Fish and Game Department (AZFGD) seeks to restore the natural flow of water through its mountains, connect patches of natural habitat by limiting grazing and funding rehabilitation projects, and controlling invasive species. Vehicular access to known trogon breeding habitat, tape-recorded trogon calls used to lure the birds into view, and recreational activities near nest sites are all restricted in Arizona, but such guidelines have been enforced only to varying degrees. Additional measures already in use include signs posted in heavily visited canyons, brochures for visitors that describe trogon breeding requirements, and the exclusion of people from highly visible and/or accessible nests.

Thirty artificial nest boxes were installed in Arizona's Huachuca Mountains, but none were used in a four-year period, emphasizing the importance of habitat conservation. In the Chiricuaha Mountains, the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon was declared a National Zoological Area, and AZFGD suggests protecting one canyon in each mountain range where significant numbers of Elegant Trogons breed.
What You Can Do
If you visit the Elegant Trogon or use its habitat for recreation, respect its sensitivity to human disturbance during the breeding period (May through July). Refrain from using recordings to lure this species into sight. 

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.
More Information
The United States Geological Survey provides an overview of Arizona's unique mountains and their importance to America's natural heritage. See Paul Warshall's "Southwestern Sky Island Ecosystems

Keep abreast of the Elegant Trogon's status in Arizona and the health of its environment by reading the Huachuca Audubon Society's "The Trogon News". 

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources.
Natural History References
Kunzmann, M. R., L. S. Hall, and R. R. Johnson. 1998. Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans). In The Birds of North America, No. 357 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Arizona Game and Fish Department. 2001. Trogon elegans Elegant Trogon. Unpublished abstract compiled and edited by the Heritage Data Management System, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix, AZ. 7 pages.

Kunzmann, M. R., L. S. Hall, and R. R. Johnson. 1998. Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans). In The Birds of North America, No. 357 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Latta, M.J., C.J. Beardmore, and T.E. Corman. 1999. Arizona Partners in Flight Bird Conservation Plan. Version 1.0. Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program Technical Report 142. Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix, Arizona.