Meet the Florida scrub-jay
The majestic little blue and gray bird known as the Florida scrub-jay isn’t just a pretty face — it’s special.
The species is the only bird that is unique, or endemic, to Florida.
And, like many of the state’s natural wonders, the scrub-jay is in danger of disappearing forever.
Habitat loss is leaving the birds stranded in isolated groups with limited mating opportunities, according to Audubon Florida.
So what’s a conservationist to do?
Unfortunately for biodiversity, birds don’t have dating websites or apps to meet local singles.
That’s where a local land trust is stepping in.
The Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast recently received a $20,000 grant from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help the endangered birds.
Specifically, the foundation will try to restore and conserve prime Florida scrub-jay habitat in east Manatee County. The area is “a critical wildlife corridor that is experiencing rapid development,” according to the land trust.
The efforts will take place at the land trust’s recently protected Tatum Sawgrass Scrub Preserve, a 38-acre land patch just north of Myakka River State Park.
The preserve will form a habitat bridge between Sarasota and Manatee counties that should allow the isolated populations to mix and mingle, according to the land trust.
And conservationists are hoping that nests full of little blue eggs will follow.
“We are grateful to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for investing in one of our key land conservation priorities, to protect and restore Florida’s most imperiled species and places,” foundation president Christine Johnson said in a press release.
“The iconic Florida scrub-jay is beloved and its habitat, Florida scrub, is quickly disappearing due to development.”
Efforts are also underway to protect and restore other “stepping stone” habitats for the birds, including lands linking South Venice Lemon Bay Preserve to Oscar Scherer State Park and Oscar Scherer State Park to Duette Preserve in Manatee County.
The Florida scrub-jay population has been in decline for decades, falling from tens of thousands at the turn of the 20th century to only thousands today.
Habitat destruction for agriculture and development coupled with fire suppression are largely to blame, according to Audubon Florida.
Without natural wildfires, the Florida scrub landscape becomes overgrown, food sources dwindle and predators become too numerous for scrub-jays to thrive or even survive.
Scrub-jay populations are then fragmented into isolated colonies where they slowly die off without the numbers and genetic diversity needed to produce enough healthy offspring.
That is what is happening in Sarasota County, where the local population of scrub-jays is nearing extirpation, or local extinction, according to the foundation.
When the last statewide census of Florida scrub-jays was conducted in the 1990s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the species was extirpated or functionally extinct from more than 10 counties that it previously occupied.
Florida scrub-jays aren’t the only ones that benefit from the protection and restoration of their native habitat.
They share their sandy home with several other endangered or endemic Florida critters, including the Florida scrub lizard, the Florida sand skink, the gopher tortoise and the eastern indigo snake.
In Manatee County, humans will be able to enjoy the restored habitat, too; planned walking trails and guided tours will allow a firsthand look at an ecosystem that can only be seen in Florida.
Floridians who want to help conserve the Florida scrub-jay can sign up for Audubon Florida’s “Jay Watch” program. The program assembles and trains citizen scientists to perform scrub-jay counts each year.
A Jay Watch survey is held at Duette Preserve in Manatee County every July.
And if you happen to live in Florida scrub-jay territory, here are some tips for coexisting with the birds from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection:
- Provide habitat for scrub-jays by planting and protecting scrub patches on your property. Maintain a maximum height of 10 feet for vegetation if you live on or near a scrub-jay habitat.
- Protect scrub-jays from family pets, especially cats. Encourage passage and strict enforcement of community leash laws for dogs and cats.
- Restrict use of pesticides. They can limit or contaminate the insects consumed by jays.
- Support establishment of scrub-jay preserves. Managed habitat is essential for protecting the species.
- Do not hand-feed them; it is illegal and a danger to their well-being.