By Ali Horton
As the only species of bird endemic to the state, the Florida scrub jay is a rare and delightful sight to behold. Their exclusivity to Florida makes them unique however they are also federally listed under the Endangered Species Act as a threatened and protected species. These beautifully muted blue-and-gray birds with long tails are closely related to blue jays, crows and magpies. An easy way to distinguish them from the common blue jay is that the scrub jay lacks a crest atop their head.
Florida scrub jays are distributed around distinct parts of the state, and they prefer open habitat that contain an abundance of oak shrubs, sand pines and flatwoods. Their habitat tends to fall in the dryer and more low-growing parts of the state which we refer to as the Florida scrubs. In fact, prescribed burns in these areas are a key factor in their conservation efforts.
Scrub jays forage in flocks, on the ground and in trees. Their omnivorous diet mainly consists of acorns, insects, snails, eggs, berries, seeds and small vertebrates. An interesting behavior is that Florida scrub jays nest in groups and often have other birds helping them raise their young. This is referred to as cooperative breeding and usually includes family members. The pairs average two to six eggs per brood, having a clutch once or twice per year. Mating typically occurs from March through June. Scrub jay chicks fledge their nests around 3 weeks of age and often stay near their flock to help with the next hatch.
Florida scrub jays are also interesting because they are considered homebodies that do not migrate. Rather, they stay close to where they hatched and spend their lives in one area, with very little movement from their homes. They routinely protect their same nesting area year after year. This preference is to their detriment, as these birds suffer greatly from habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation and habitat loss. Land clearing for agricultural purposes as well as development are also massive threats to the species.
It is estimated that the Florida scrub jay population has tragically declined by 90 percent in the last decade. This has catalyzed a myriad of efforts to save the Florida scrub jay. Efforts in preserves and parks are focusing on habitat restoration, public awareness, strategic conservation efforts and increased prescribed burns in their preferred locations. These efforts are an important beginning to helping the Florida scrub jay recover and thrive.