The Florida Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens[A]) is one of the species of scrub jay native to North America. It is the only species of bird endemic to the U.S. state of Florida. Because of this, it is heavily sought by birders who travel from across the country to observe this unique species. It is known to have been present in Florida as a recognizably distinct species since at least 2 mya (Emslie, 1996 ); possibly it is derived from the ancestors of Woodhouse's Scrub Jay, the inland forms of the Western Scrub Jay (Rice et al. 2003 ).
It is 28 cm (11 inches) long, and weighs 75-85 g (2.5 to 3 ounces). It has a strong black bill, blue head and nape without a crest, a whitish forehead and supercilium, blue bib, blue wings, grayish underparts, gray back, long blue tail, black legs and feet.
The Florida scrub-jay is found only in Florida Scrub habitat, an ecosystem found only in central Florida. It is characterized by nutrient-poor soil, occasional drought and frequent wildfires. Because of this somewhat harsh weather pattern, it is host to a small assortment of very specific plants, including sand pines, sand live oak, myrtle oak, Chapman's oak, scrub oak, and various other hardy plants such as cacti.
An inquisitive and intelligent species, the most striking attribute of the Florida Scrub Jay's behavior is its remarkable tameness. Scrub Jays show almost no fear of people and will even take peanuts from people's hands and lips. It is extremely important to note, however, that it is illegal to feed a Florida scrub jay. It is detrimental to their health and even the overall survival of the species: it has been noted that Florida scrub jays that are frequently fed by people reproduce earlier in the year than those who are not fed, and their young have a drastically reduced survival rate. Fledgling scrub jays feed primarily on caterpillars present in the late spring and summer; consequentially, if they hatch too early in the year the caterpillars are not available leading to malnutrition or starvation. Another potential danger of feeding Florida scrub jays occurs when people feed them in the vicinity of a road, as one major cause of death in urban areas is collision with vehicles.
Florida Scrub Jays are omnivorous, and eat a wide variety of acorns, seeds, peanuts, insects, tree frogs, turtles, snakes, lizards, and young mice. Florida scrub jays have also been occasionally observed robbing other birds of their eggs or nestlings, but this is a rare occurrence. They routinely cache thousands of acorns a year, burying them just beneath the surface of the sand. They are typically buried in the fall and consumed during the winter and spring. Those acorns not found germinate, making the Florida Scrub Jay a premier disperser for a variety of oak trees.
Scrub Jays will also steal silverware and other shiny objects in a manner similar to the American Crow.
Florida Scrub Jay call from Cornell Lab of Ornithology (RealMedia format).
Florida Scrub Jays are also one of the few cooperative breeding birds in North America. Fledgling Florida Scrub Jays remain in their parent's habitat for several years and help to rear young, watch for predators, and defend territory against neighboring Florida Scrub Jay family groups. These families can range in size from 2 to 8.
Juvenile Florida scrub jay
Juvenile Florida scrub jay developing adult coloration
After about 2 to 3 years, fledglings leave the group to form mating pairs of their own. Mating season ranges from March to June. Clutches usually contain about 3 to 4 eggs which are incubated in about 18 days. Fledging occurs in about 16 to 19 days. Fledglings can be distinguished from the adult birds due to the coloration of the feathers on their head, which are brown instead of blue. The brown feathers on the juvenile's head are slowly replaced by blue feathers as the bird matures into adulthood.
Scrub habitat has dwindled considerably in the past several decades as Florida has continued to develop. Fire suppression also leads to the natural succession of large oaks and trees which changes the habitat. In recent years, environmental groups within the state have made a strong effort at preserving Florida's remaining scrub through controlled burns and even clearing out areas of large trees to increase the size of a scrub habitat.
The Florida Scrub Jay was officially listed as a threatened state species by Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission in 1975 and it was listed as a threatened federal species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1987.
In 1993, there were estimated to be 4,000 breeding pairs left in the wild. Despite the protections, the Scrub Jay is still thought to be on the decline. Studies done in Brevard County, once the most numerous Florida county for Scrub Jays, noted declines of about 33% since the 1993 census alone.
Another attempt to conserve the bird is an ongoing campaign to name the Florida Scrub Jay the new state bird of Florida. Another argument for changing the state bird is that the current bird (viz. the Northern mockingbird) is the state bird of several other states while the scrub jay is exclusive to Florida.
In recent years there has been some debate about whether or not the Florida Scrub Jay should be officially listed as an Endangered Species because of the loss of homes. However, environmentalists hope that current conservation efforts should help the species population to at least stabilize.
On the other hand, the IUCN classifies this species as vulnerable to extinction VU B1ab(i,ii,iii,iv,v); C1+2a(i) (BirdLife International 2004). This signifies that in 2004, the population was declining and no more than 10 subpopulations were known. Both the number of adult birds as well as amount and quality of habitat were in decline, and local subpopulations were in danger of disappearing altogether. About 8000 mature birds were believed to exist - with no more than 1000 in any one subpopulation -, and population numbers had dropped by about 10% over the last decade or so.
A long-term and ongoing study of the Florida Scrub Jay has been taking place at the Archbold Biological Station at Lake Placid.
The Florida Scrub Jay was featured in an episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! Season 3 Episode 11.
Two adult Florida scrub jays at Lyonia Preserve
Adult Florida scrub jay
Brown-colored head of the Juvenile Florida scrub jay
Juvenile Florida scrub jay beginning to develop blue coloration on its head