The new literary genre of political ornithology emerges from Jonathan Evan Maslow's account of his 30-day quest in search of the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. He sets out to discover "a bird of such incredible beauty that for 200 years European naturalists thought it must be the fabrication of American aborigines"; instead, his senses are mugged by a small country strangled by self-hatred and ignorance.

Travel writers (and political ornithologists) necessarily lead masochistic lives: The worse it is to live through, the better it is to write about. Maslow tempers the horrors of his hours with valiant humor, no doubt based on his sureness that his short-lived tourist visa won't be renewed.

Maslow seems to marvel that he was even able to enter the country. His journey in July and August 1983 coincided with the bizarre and bloody regime of Efrain Rios a military strong man and ordained deacon in an obscure fundamentalist sect founded by California ex-hippies. Maslow's only encounter with Montt is his joining a press pool outside the presidentially occupied urinal in the palace; he aptly decides that no further encounter could better convey his esteem for the country's leader.

Throughout Guatemala we see quetzals everywhere -- on paper currency, textiles, belts, flags and home movies. And, for a time, it seems that Maslow will get no closer to what he calls the Q-bird. A meeting with the director of the National Museum of Natural History leaves him without much hope he'll be permitted in the sighting areas but with keen insights into the man's character. In the director's office stood a bookcase with a sign that read: "90 Books Which Mention the Name of the Director of This Museum."

Left to roam the city with his photographer friend (Maslow admits he'd never have made the trip alone, being certain he would have died of "frustration, loneliness, fear, or possibly just from a stray bullet"), he comes upon the authentic national bird of Guatemala -- the zopilote or black vulture. His description of the garbage dump of the capital, which is a playground, shopping mall and cafeteria for humans and animals alike, is a condemnation of the country. Maslow creates a portrait of a people whose lives have been so perverted by 400 years of amoral rule that their national motto must be "why bother."

What he does very well is secede from the present to describe the antecedents of the Death Squads in their Chevy Blazers with black glass and the ongoing massacre of Indians. With a careful eye and a touch of cynicism, he recounts the ignominious discovery of Guatemala by the conquistadors, perhaps history's first purveyors of state-sponsored terrorism. Their greatest intellectual feat, he concludes, was their indifference to the natural situation of the Americas, as shown by their wardrobes of armor in the tropics and the destruction of indigenous civilizations often more advanced than their own. "For all it mattered to the conquistadors, they could as well have been campaigning in China. Some, of course, thought they were."

Maslow stubbornly plods on past military roadblocks and through incessant rains to observe the resplendent and elusive quetzal. Along the way he spots motmots and swallow-tailed kites, and his heart beats faster, his words convey life. He, like anyone who has been a spectator in a tropical rain forest, is awed by the tumultuous efficiency of so many living mechanisms. What a welcome respite from the garbage dumps and 14-year-old soldiers. Yet there is still suspense that after this ordeal the bird he has come to see has flown its national coop.

Toward the end of "Bird of Life, Bird of Death," its pace and pungency subside; after all, how exciting can a stakeout for a nearly extinct bird be, which may be one of the limitations on the field of political ornithology. But it's a perspective worth pursuing, as Maslow eloquently argues: "If we want to know Central America, someone ought to peek beyond the dictators and the dominoes, to the ways living things relate to their environment. What befalls birds as different as the Quetzal and the Zopilote reflect and foretell what happens to humans: in the short run, ecology is natural history; in the long run, it's more like prophecy."