|The Florida Scrub-Jay, the state’s only native bird, exists nowhere except in Florida. Sadly, even though it is listed as a threatened species, populations of this unusually friendly bird continue to decrease.|
October 10. 2011
I often take alternative routes to town. Rather than stay on the straight four-lane, I turn onto narrow side roads, meandering up and down hills, around curves, over bumpy roads and through landscapes more rural than commercial.
One of my favorite back roads borders an abandoned orange grove slated to be a mega-development before the bottom fell out of the real-estate market. I like that route because it's rich in wildlife and short on traffic. Driving along at a sluggish 35 mph, I'm more likely to pass a gopher tortoise than another car.
While other vehicles are a rarity on this particular stretch, birds are not. Hawks hover overhead and ospreys fly by with fish in their talons. One time in the early evening, I pulled over to watch a large owl on the prowl. But the main reason I take that route is to see scrub-jays.
The Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) is a living treasure. Native to and found only in the Sunshine State, this 12-inch-long, 3-ounce blue-and-gray crestless cousin of the common blue jay is a friendly, intelligent and highly social bird. Mature pairs mate for life, raising their young on a diet composed mainly of acorns, insects, fruit and small vertebrates. Family units often include adult offspring that help raise their younger siblings while doubling as sentries on the lookout for predatory hawks.
As its name implies, the Florida scrub-jay favors scrubby areas. In order to supply its needs, a family group requires about 25 acres in which oak trees less than 8 feet tall cover 50 to 90 percent of the land and underbrush is six inches tall or shorter. When scrub oaks are unavailable, they often set up residence in neglected citrus groves.
Unfortunately, such property also works well for residential and commercial development. Habitat loss has resulted in drastic decreases in Florida scrub-jay numbers. The bird was listed as a threatened species in 1975 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and in 1987 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Despite those classifications, scrub-jay populations continue to plummet. A 1992-93 statewide survey conducted by the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid numbered the Florida scrub-jay population at about 10,000 but in May 2011. A follow-up count revealed that fewer than 6,000 birds remain in all of Florida.
Because I know how rare Florida scrub-jays are, I was awed the other day to chance upon not one, but three of these winged beauties sitting atop successive trees. Driving down that route along acres of nonproductive orange trees, I always hope to encounter birds, but I don't always see them. On this particular day, I was unusually lucky.
I wish Florida scrub-jays shared my good fortune.
The birds I saw standing guard on the branches of dead orange trees might be able to protect their families from hawks and owls but have no control over the actions of people. In the wild, the inherently friendly Florida scrub-jay will eat peanuts out of a person's hand. It's sadly ironic that the very beings it trusts present its most serious threat.
Someday, when the real-estate climate improves, developers inevitably will plow down the stubby orange trees, replacing them with paved roads and home sites. If the birds are lucky, they will relocate to another abandoned grove. If they're not lucky, they'll become just another name on the list of extinct species.
Destructive as people can be, we also have the ability to help. Organizations like the Clermont-based Florida Scrub-Jay Trail (scrubjaytrail.org; 352-429-5566) educate the public about the scrub-jay's plight while programs like the Nature Conservancy-sponsored Jay Watch (352-732-1225) trains community volunteers to monitor bird populations.
It was a heartening experience to see three scrub-jays the other day, but as I drove on, I couldn't help but wonder what if instead of being rarities such sightings were commonplace? If more people get involved to help the state's only endemic bird, things could turn around and Florida scrub-jay populations might one day rebound.