Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Florida Scrub-Jay

My friend Bernie Master happens to be down in Florida, and we met up this morning to go look for Florida's only endemic bird, the federally threatened Florida Scrub-Jay. Bernie took me up to Oscar Scherer State Park, and scoring the jays was a breeze.

Picture-perfect scrub-jay habitat, a mixture of scrub oaks, saw palmetto, and scattered slash pines. Lots of other cool flora, too.

It didn't take long before we heard the harsh scolds and querulous notes of a family unit of jays. Florida Scrub-Jays are ridiculously tame and extremely curious. This one investigates your blogger from the brush.

Florida Scrub-Jays have declined alarmingly. Their historical range once covered about 7,000 square miles, and they were probably quite common in appropriate habitat. Rampant development in peninsular Florida has destroyed much dry scrub and the jay's total population may now be as few as 7,000 individuals.

In 1995, the scrub-jay complex was split into three species: Western Scrub-Jay, Island Scrub-Jay (Santa Cruz Island, southern California), and this one. Thus, the Florida Scrub-Jay became the only resident bird completely confined to the Sunshine State. Many populations are heavily studied, as can be seen by the four colored bands on this jay's legs.

Easily one of the tamest wild birds that you'll encounter in North America, Florida Scrub-Jays will often closely approach people. That was our experience, with jays coming within five feet of us without any coaxing whatsoever.

Florida Scrub-Jays are highly social and form long-lasting family units. Young birds stay with the parents for at least a year, and serve as "helpers" for future nestings.

At least seasonally, acorns from any of several species of scrub oaks form the bulk of the jays' diet. This is Myrtle Oak, Quercus myrtifolia, an elfin treelet of dry sandy soil. We saw some of the jays harvesting and pounding open these acorns, and sometimes transporting two at a time.

This one - I think - is Sand Live Oak, Quercus geminata, another jay food source. These oaks and all of the other plants in these dry scrub communities are fire-dependent, and by extension, so are the jays.

Fortunately, the staff of Oscar Scherer State Park and the Florida Department of Natural Resources manage for scrub-jay habitat. This is a newly cleared area that, in a few years, will provide suitable conditions for the jays.

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1 comment:

Fixed Carbon said...

Jim:
Spectacular post! The scrub jays in Davis, CA are studied a lot. One student did behavioral work by watching their response to peanuts that she had set out. Our yard was one of her study sites. When she arrived, the jays were ready and waiting, and the peanuts were taken very quickly. Two years later, I still find peanuts around the garden; the jays forget where they have stashed some of their treasure.