It’s the height of the birding season in Florida, where some 500 species can be found from the sawgrasses marshes of the Everglades to the North Florida oak hammocks. But if you had to choose a single ambassador for the state’s huge bird population, it would be the Florida Scrub-Jay.
These beautiful blue and gray birds are so full of personality and appeal that there are on-and-off-again pushes to make them the state bird. The Florida Scrub-Jay is the sole bird found only in Florida. And they’re among the most social creatures you’ll ever encounter.
When we finally found them on a small preserve just west of Titusville midway into our January swing through Florida, this family of jays acted as if we were long lost friends:
They flew back and forth in front of us as if showing us the way. They took up perches just a few yards off and launched into nonstop greetings – (or scolds; it was hard to tell which). They hopped around on the ground as if in charge of entertainment for our party of birders.
In many ways, the Florida Scrub-Jay is the symbol for Florida’s bird story. On the one hand, Florida is near the top of the list of states for its number of resident and migratory species. On the other, it’s struggling to keep from losing several of its most prominent indigenous birds, including the Scrub-Jay.
“The big thing that threatened the Florida Scrub-Jay is that they occur in high dry ridges of land,’’ said Reed Bowman, a research biologist with the Archbold Biological Station and one of the state’s experts on Scrub-Jays. “And that’s also where all the people want to be.”
About 4,000 Florida Scrub-Jays remain in a handful of scattered Central Florida patches of elevated scrub land that sit on sandy soil, with low bushy growth and few trees. As development consumes what’s left of this habitat, state and county researchers are waging a campaign to keep the jays from dwindling further, to the point of moving whole families when their territories are threatened.
“We’re losing land by the minute,’’ said Johnny Baker, a Brevard County land manager who watches over some of the remaining Scrub-Jay families. “We’ve got to preserve what’s left.’’
The story of the legislation to make the Florida Scrub-Jay the state bird helps explain why they’re in trouble in the first place. Opponents in Tallahassee have cited a list of reasons for keeping the common, unexciting Northern Mockingbird in that perch. But the unspoken truth is the powerful development lobby is afraid the special status might get in the way of further construction, say those in the know.
“It’s sad,’’ said Paddy Cunningham, a biologist from Fort Lauderdale who leads birding tours all across the state.
Like other threatened Florida birds, such as the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, the Scrub-Jay depends on the unique environments to thrive. Not only does the jay rely on the sandy soil and scrub growth, but it thrives in the wake of fires at a time when even controlled burns can be unpopular.
“There are certain core areas where they’re doing pretty well,’’ said Damian Keene, land management supervisor for northern Brevard County. “But overall, they’re still on a gradual decline in the state.’’
The jays live in families on 25 to 50 acres of land, eating nuts, insects, berries and small vertebrates such as mice and lizards. When their young are ready to fledge, they stay around to help raise the next broods. They take turns watching out for hawks and other predators, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Some jays are so friendly and unafraid of people that they’ll take peanuts from your hand, and even perch on your head as part of the deal. The internet is littered with photos of this unusual bird antic, but researchers say it’s a bad idea that helps the jays lose their healthy fear of humans.
The day we encountered the jays, their social sides were on full display. They took turns watching us as we cut through the small sandy hill they patrol. More than once, a jay came up with a small acorn and went to work in the middle our path, chopping the nut down to size.
Then, just as quickly as they arrived, they disappeared. We walked up and down the path hoping for another encounter. But they’d move on to other things – a reminder of the fragile existence of the Florida Scrub-Jay.
Here’s a gallery with a few more photos from our morning with the Scrub-Jays: