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January 29, 2021
Corey James Comstock

Smart as a Scrub-jay

Recently, Kim King-Wrenn from the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge visited us on Speaking of Animals, our weekly radio show on WNZF. She spoke passionately about the plight of our very own Florida scrub-jay.

What plight?

Sprawling development and habitat destruction threaten this bird’s already diminishing population, placing it on the federal endangered species list.

The bird lives exclusively in Florida so its fate intrinsically aligns with our state’s geographic and biological realities. Initially considered an offshoot of the western North American scrub-jay, it is now considered a full relict species onto itself (Florida scrub-jay, Aphelocoma coerulescens). They congregate in the regions of scrubby oaks and sandy soil known as the Florida scrub and confine themselves to these isolated pockets, rarely venturing out. The species has become endangered due to continuous urbanization and poor land management.

According to audobon.org and fws.gov, as of the early 1990s, the Florida scrub-jay population dwindled down to approximately 4,000 pairs, a reduction of more than 90% from original populations. Today, those totals are even less. Expanding urbanization certainly contributes to the problem but fire issues within prime Florida oak scrub squeezes out the jay's habitat as well.

Fire issues? Maybe it’s not what you think.

Florida scrub-jays cannot persist in habitats that are not burned regularly. Natural fires, typically started by lightning strikes, influence scrub habitat succession and these fires historically occurred at 10-to-100-year intervals during pre-settlement times. However, in the absence of natural fires, the oak scrub regions deteriorate, making conservation management paramount in the prevention of Florida scrub-jay extinction due to demographic fluctuations.

Why save them? For one reason, they belong to the family of crows, magpies, and jays, the smartest birds on the planet. For another, these birds interact with fascinating social order.

Florida scrub-jays practice cooperative breeding which means that they live in extended family groups, sometimes as many as eight adults and four juveniles. The fledglings remain with Mom and Pop as helpers, contributing to the feeding and training of the hatchlings, territory defense, sentinel watches, and predator mobbing.

One will perch on an open branch and perform guard-duty and, if a spotting occurs, tweet an alarm. Then they collectively drive off the hawk or other intruder. Obviously, the bigger the group, the more intimidating they can be.

It doesn’t stop there, though. These birds have distinctive calls, like “words”, for various intruders which allows the extended family to immediately understand their best course of action. A scrub-jay family can occupy and defend a territory 9 to 10 ha of Florida scrub.

In case you were wondering, ha means hectare and one hectare equals 10,000 square meters or 2.47 acres.

Have you ever seen one? On the Atlantic coast, Florida scrub-jay cooperatives extend from Flagler County all the way down to Palm Beach. They are around ten inches long and weigh a little over two ounces and look similar to a blue jay but have no crest on their heads. Watch for a medium-sized, long-tailed, blue songbird that perches atop shrubs or hops along the road in search of insects.

Kim tells me that these marvelous birds can live twenty years or more. However, only effective management of the remaining Florida oak scrub habitat will determine future lifespans of our magnificent Florida scrub-jays.
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