The Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida scrub jay is gregarious, highly intelligent, and also a true native…one of Florida’s only endemic birds. So why isn’t the Florida scrub jay our State Bird? Good question. We wonder the same thing.

The scrub jay has very specific ecosystem requirements, and can be found almost exclusively in one type of habitat: the Florida scrub. Unfortunately, this habitat is rapidly disappearing due to human development.

Florida scrub jays are threatened by

The Florida scrub habitat requires regular _________ to prevent invasive plants from taking over

The sandy substrate found in Florida scrub habitats is ancient coastal dune sand.

The Florida scrub jay is known for its ___________ practices

The Florida Scrub Jay

The Florida scrub jay is one of only a few bird species that are endemic to Florida, meaning they aren’t found in any other state.  They are also completely reliant on a specific type of habitat that they need to survive: the Florida scrub habitat.

How do you think this species’ reliance on this unique type of habitat should impact human development in Florida?

Can you think of another species that has very unique habitat requirements?

The Florida Scrub Jay

One of Florida’s most interesting residents can be found almost exclusively in one of our most ancient habitats. Archbold Biological Station is home to some of the last unspoiled Florida scrub land in the state. To really understand this habitat, let’s start with the topography.

The Lake Wales Ridge is a dividing line between the Kissimmee River watershed to the east, and the Fisheating Creek watershed to the west. Two hundred thousand years ago, when ocean levels were much higher, this elevated land was actually a chain of islands.

Richard Kern: “So the Florida scrub habitat is characterized by this really powdery sand. This is actually ancient, coastal dune sand and this substrate really determines what kinds of plants can grow here. The plants are mostly low shrubs, there’s no tall canopy and the sand also provides really good drainage which means that the scrub habitat is usually very hot, and very dry, almost desert-like conditions here. There are actually a couple of dozen species of plants and animals that can only be found in the Florida scrub habitat.”

Included in that list, is the Florida scrub jay, Florida’s state bird. No, actually, that’s a lie. Our state bird is the mocking bird, which is also the state bird for Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. Not very original. The Florida scrub jay is, however, a true native: one of Florida’s only endemic birds. Jays are super intelligent and live in complex family units within clearly defined territories.

Meredith Heather: “So this map represents our study tract at Archbold, and each sticker represents a scrub jay family, and each family unit consists of a breeding pair and either zero to five helpers. So on average a family group has 3 helpers, and that’s an interesting system because it’s a cooperative breeding system which is unusual in the bird community.”

Dr. Sahas Barve: “Only a subset of cooperative breeders do have helpers that help which means that the number of helpers that a group has actually has a positive impact on the number of nestlings the pair produces.”

Juveniles stay with their parents for several years after fledging. They’re not just mooching, however. They’re put right to work, helping to feed and train their younger siblings, and keeping watch for predators. Newly fledged jays exhibit begging behavior to entice mom, dad, brother or sister to give them a snack.

Researchers at Archbold Biological Station have been studying the Florida scrub jay for over 5 decades, giving this species the distinction of being one of the longest studied birds in the world. They can be curious and comfortable around humans, making behavioral observations easy.

Dr. Sahas Barve: “Scrub jays are just great learners. If they do a behavior and get positively rewarded, they’ll do it again. And just like you train a dog you can train a scrub jay, or actually probably faster than a dog because they’re probably smarter than dogs. Often birds are fed in back yards or at feeders and they often fall prey to cats.”

That’s right: our beloved domesticated cat is a prolific bird predator. But the main threat to the scrub jay is habitat loss. More than any other habitat in Florida, the scrub has just the right requirements for scrub jays to flourish. The problem is, the scrub is characteristically high and dry land, which is valuable real estate. Today most of our historic scrub lands have been developed.

Much has also been lost to succession. Succession is the process of change from one type of habitat to another. For the scrub, there is one factor can prevent this from happening: fire.

Plants native to this habitat have adapted to fire. Without regular burns, other less fire-adapted plants will take over. Until recently, humans have assumed that all wildfires are bad, leading to a long history of fire suppression. Today, ecologists at Archbold perform “prescribed” burns to keep the scrub healthy.

For the Florida scrub jay and all of the other fascinating species that live here, protecting Florida scrub habitats from development and managing them correctly is absolutely critical.