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Not Just Another Jay
Photos & Text by R. Munguia

I first met a Florida Scrub Jay when I moved to Florida in 1996, and from that day, I knew it was the beginning of a long, unconditional friendship.  It was a Saturday morning when we first saw this family of five members rearing a new generation right in the parking lot of the FPL building in North Palm Beach county.  Nothing prepared me for what I was about to witness, an untamed bird that will welcome you with a loud shriek and a head bob.  All this took place in a small piece of coastal scrub land which was bound for development. Needless to say my friends there did not last much longer. Neither were the larger population that lived less than a mile north on Alt A1A.  By the time we moved to live in Polk county, they were almost gone, and nobody was at fault but us humans. 

Florida Scrub Jay

Aphelocoma coerulescens

The Florida Scrub Jay is unique in many ways; just for starters, this jay is the only bird species endemic to the state. They live in tightly-knit families in which birds from a previous clutch help the breeding pair to raise the new clutch. This behavior is not found in their cousins, the Western Scrub Jay. A member of the family group serves as a sentinel watching everybody's back while they forage. Not many bird species show this many behavioral adaptations. In fact, these are evolutionary trends that have allowed the species to survive in such harsh environments as the oak scrub.  Right in this type of ecosystem lies the answer as to why the Scrub Jays are declining. Florida oak scrubs are well sought real estate for development , citrus crops, and even theme parks due to their well-drained soil which consists mainly of sand and which is essential for Scrub Jay survival.  This type of habitat is also well known for hosting  plant species including scrub oaks and slash pine and a multitude of insect species. Many attempts have been made to protect this sensitive habitat, but unfortunately, the developing trend continues and with less than 4,000 nesting pairs, the future for the Florida Scrub Jay looks slim. We have lost more than 90% of the historic population of this species. But habitat loss is not the only reason why their numbers are plummeting.  Florida Scrub Jays do not move far from their home range, and rarely fly past obstacles such as developed areas. This has an adverse effect on their ability to colonize new habitats or to respond to changes in their existing range.  Additionally the frequency as well as the lack of natural fires can further reduce the  survival of these birds. The best scrub for the Scrub Jay is one that has been burned from 5-20 years ago as the trees will be mature enough to provide a good amount of acorns. The best remaining habitats for the species are found on the Lake Wales Ridge and some elevated areas with plenty of open sand as well as coastal scrub areas.

In order to understand the Florida Scrub Jay, we need to look into their background as members of the crow family. Crows are perhaps the most intelligent of all bird species, although I'm sure a lot of parrot owners will disagree; but when it comes to wild birds, the crows reign supreme.  These guys are good thinkers, which have mastered the art of cracking large seeds by placing them in the way of moving vehicles, and some even use their own stick tools to spear grubs out of their hidings inside trees. The Florida Scrub Jay is no different. I have witnessed behaviors not found in any other birds. I remember one time while working with a colony in Jupiter, FL a young jay with a hidden talent. While the sentinel was watching from above, this guy proceeded to hide his personal stash of acorns, and would always do it with secrecy and diligence.  But on this day, something unique happened.  Instead of just digging a hole and dropping in the acorn, this bird transplanted a little plant growing nearby and placed it right on top the hidden seed, as if it was growing  there.  Sentinels are well known for coming off their post to take part of the bounty that others have hidden under the sand, but not that day. The sentinel came to investigate with sweeping motions of the head and bill sinking in the sand, but could not find anything.  He went past the small plant and totally ignored it. Obviously,  the young jay must have learn this trick from previous experience, but to me, it shows a level of intelligence far above any other wild bird I have seen.

The ecological importance of the Florida Scrub Jay is immense, in part because it is one of the few species of birds that occupy the scrub habitat. They help with seed dispersion and insect control in areas where not many birds survive due to its arid nature and lack of other sources of food such as fruit. In the past, the Scrub Jay has been the topic of discussion at a government level  when many conservationists asked for it to be named the new Florida State Bird, but it was rejected.  Many have speculated that the main reason for not allowing this is the pressure from developers, which would be required to obtain additional permits for translocation and the fact that more scrub habitats will get protection.  Perhaps it is not too late to save a species that, while not considered endangered yet by the USFW, is considered highly threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  One of the key factors to the survival of this species is education and to be able to reach the many citizens unaware of its existence.  The more we educate about the Scrub Jay's situation, the more chances we have of getting more protection for this unique bird. If you're interested in helping the Florida Scrub Jay, contact The Nature Conservancy Jay Watch Project.





Florida Scrub Jay Facts

Florida Scrub Jays live in tight-knit families. Last year birds help parents raise the new generation by defending territory and bringing food to the nestlings.

They're only found in Florida, and are currently a threatened species.
Their range is restricted to the oak scrub communities, a highly rare ecosystem under threat.

Other Jays

The Blue Jay is often confused with the Florida Scrub Jay. The main difference is in the white feathers around the face and the black markings.
The Steller's Jay is a common species of the Western States.
The Western Scrub Jay is very similar to our Florida species. The main difference is in the large dark plumage of the face. This one is a young bird.
Photos by R. Munguia

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