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Chichen Itza Chirp

Temple of Kukulcan Chichen Itza, Mexico

Clap your hands at the base of the pyramid, and the song of a sacred Mayan bird will echo through the air.

CHICHEN ITZA’s MAYAN CITY is full of architectural and engineering marvels. At each equinox, a giant snake spawned in the dark past the Kukulcan Temple. But the pyramids do more than stage this spectacular light show.

Clap your hands on the foot of the stairs and an echo will echo through the air. This is no ordinary explosive echo. It was like the song of a ghostly flock of birds, a chorus of songs before fading into silence.

During ceremonies where Kukulcan is invoked or worshiped, a priest will face the pyramid and clap his hands, making a cry. He then turned and faced the Temple of Warriors and clapped his hands once more, seemingly causing a clack to come from the rocks. An echo resounded with a gurgling and hoarse whisper that was said to be the voice of god.

Birdsong may not be a coincidence. According to some sound experts, it mirrors the call of the resplendent quetzal, a gorgeous bird covered in a luxurious patch of green and red feathers. Like the snake, the quetzal was considered divine by the Mayans. This “air god” is a symbol of goodness and light. Its tail feathers adorned the hats of many noblemen (no birds died in the making of the hats, as it was forbidden to kill a sacred quartet). Bird call echoes were first studied in 1998 and have puzzled researchers ever since. It is unclear whether the Mayans intentionally designed the pyramid with such a purpose in mind.

Some say they actually started building the stone giant, knowing that its multi-tiered stairs would control the sound and let it sing the song of their sacred bird. Others claim that they stumbled across the sonic wonder, then changed the architecture later to improve the effect.

Unfortunately for the quetzal, increasing habitat loss and illegal trade are threatening this stunning species.

Fragmented populations have disappeared, and their future as a whole remains uncertain. If the species goes extinct, its song will still echo in the forest, thanks to eerie cries echoing from the stairs of Kukulcan Temple.

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