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.