Florida scrub jay

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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The Florida scrub jay is the only bird species endemic to Florida. Much of its habitat has been cleared for agriculture and development, rendering the species vulnerable to extinction.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is the Florida scrub jay?

The Florida scrub jay is the only native bird species to spend its entire life cycle in the state of Florida. The birds never migrate and are often found living as adults within just a few miles from where they hatched.

Like its cousin the blue jay, the Florida scrub jay boasts striking blue feathers, especially on the head, chest, wings, and tail. Parts of the bird’s back, head, neck, and underside are more gray or white in color. One easy way to tell the difference between the two species is that Florida scrub jays have no black markings.

Habitat and diet

Florida scrub jays live in dry, sandy areas, including ridges, coastal sand dunes, and river banks. The birds most frequently can be seen in low-growing oak scrub habitats, as well as scrubby flatwoods and other open areas.

These birds are fond of eating insects, frogs, toads, lizards, mice, and bird eggs. Acorns are also an important part of their omnivorous diet. The animals have been known to plan ahead, burying acorns in caches underground so that they can dig them up later when food is scarce.

Behavior

Florida scrub jays are what’s known as cooperative breeders. This means that not only does the male stay with the female in order to provide for and protect the chicks, but so do earlier generations of offspring. Over the course of several years, an extended Florida scrub jay family can grow to include up to eight adults and one to four juveniles, each of which contributes by caring for the young and defending the home territory.

Having more eyes on the lookout also helps these birds stay safe. Scientists have noted that Florida scrub jays take turns watching for hawks, which allows the rest of the family more time to search for food.

Like other corvids—a family that includes jays, ravens, crows, and magpies—this species is very vocal, and will use different alarm calls to alert the rest of the group to the presence of a predator above versus one from below, such as a snake.

Threats to survival

With somewhere between 2,500 and 10,000 individuals remaining, and the overall population thought to be decreasing, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the Florida scrub jay as vulnerable to extinction.

Losses of habitat and changes to what remains are two of the largest threats facing Florida scrub jays. Much of the bird’s habitat has been cleared for agriculture and development over the last 200 years. Such changes also fragment the forests that are still standing, which is a particular problem for a species not known to range widely beyond its home territory. Studies have already shown that Florida scrub jays from different parts of the state have become so disconnected from each other, they now make entirely different vocalizations.

Feral cats, invasive fire ants, strikes by vehicles, drought, West Nile virus, and climate change may also be contributing to the birds’ continued decline.

Conservation

While it may sound counterintuitive, fire suppression also threatens the species because it allows their open forests to grow thicker and taller than the birds prefer. And this is one area where wildlife managers and conservationists have been able to take action.

Prescribed burns in protected areas and with the cooperation of private landowners helps keep the Florida scrub jay’s preferred habitat open and conducive to the next generation of birds.

Several populations of Florida scrub jays have been fitted with identification bands on their feet and are under scientific observation as scientists look for more ways to help the species. Supplemental feeding also occurs in some areas.