The sprawling archaeological site of Uxmal overflows with bare stone detail. Symbolism grows along the architecture where the Turquoise-browed Motmot, (“Toh” in Maya), perches regally. She looks me in the eye, then calls to her partner with a throaty “woop-woop.” The two birds flirtatiously flutter around the corner of one of the buildings in the Nunnery Quadrangle.

A bright turquoise, Mohawk-style hairdo glistens atop the birds’ blue-green bodies. Two long, bare feather shafts lead to the fluffy tips of their tails, forming a pendulum. While perched, the birds wag their tails at one another, like hands ticking on a clock. Both the male and female birds display the same colorful markings, making them indistinguishable.

The Maya legend has it that the Toh used to be a very proud, aristocratic type, who ruled over the forest. He made the other birds do all the work, while he lazed around admiring his beautiful tail. Then, one day, the community of birds began preparing for a big storm, gathering bugs and worms. The Toh pretended to help, but sneaked away and nestled between some rocks and slept. After the storm, he perched among the others and complained about how exhausting the work was. The other birds laughed at the Toh and pointed to his tail.

During his nap, his tail had stuck out from his hiding place and the storm wreaked havoc, leaving only two ugly strings hanging where his beautiful tail once was. The Toh was overcome with shame and rather than confronting his followers, he flew down from the trees and escaped to the underworld.

To this day, the Toh builds its nest in water wells, cenotes, and quarries, deep in the forest or in big gardens outside of the city. Flying between the buildings at Uxmal, like his ancestors have done for ages, the Toh enchants all who see him. The bird’s bold colors paint life onto the sun-bleached rocks. As I chased this one and her partner, they took quick turns posing, teasing me. It felt so good to be between them, in the wild. You’ll never see a Toh in a cage, because they cannot survive captivity. The Toh demands to be free – on the outskirts of town, bridging the past to the present.

By Amanda Strickland