Florida Scrub-Jays, Part 2
To know them is to love them, except for the people with the power to help them.
Since earliest childhood, I’ve loved birds in general, at least as an abstraction based on pretty pictures, and I felt a visceral affection for the flesh-and-blood birds I encountered. House Sparrows cheep-cheep-cheeping outside my bedroom window at naptime and bedtime were homey and comforting. Robins running on the lawn and pulling up worms seemed savvy and friendly, at least if you weren’t a worm. Singing cardinals sounded so cheerful. Just noticing one of these birds was guaranteed to make me happy.
When I became a birder, and particularly as I learned more about the natural history of each species, I found much, much more to love about these and other birds. I count so many birds as “favorites” now that the word is almost meaningless. My “Top Ten Favorite Birds” includes a 14-way tie for 7th place and a 37-way tie for First Runner Up. And the next time I start thinking about a bird not on the list, I’ll probably have to revise the list upwards yet again.
The saying “familiarity breeds contempt” virtually never holds true for me. My top three favorites, the Black-capped Chickadee, Pileated Woodpecker, and Blue Jay, are birds I see just about every day out my home office window, and as that other saying goes, to know them is to love them. The three-way tie for fourth place includes two birds that used to be very common in Duluth, allowing me to see them most days within the right seasons, but are now declining—the Common Nighthawk and Evening Grosbeak. The remaining one, declining even more dangerously, has never occurred in Duluth, or Minnesota, or any place in the known universe outside of Florida. I’ve seen it many times, but it’s hardly been an everyday, or even an every-trip-to-Florida, bird for me. But the more time I spend with it, and the more I read about it, the more deeply I love it.
The Florida Scrub-Jay would hold a place in my heart simply for being the 600th bird species I ever saw in the wild. I’d been yearning to get my life list up to 600 since I read an essay about the “600 Club” when I started birding, and when my family went to Lake Kissimmee State Park in 1999, my list was at 598. A Bachman’s Sparrow was singing away as I was getting out of the car—#599, instantly clearing the way for the scrub jays who flew in a minute later to forever hold the place of honor.
And the thrill of reaching 600 was almost instantly overshadowed by the even greater thrill of experiencing these extraordinary friendly, family-oriented jays with my whole family. We always took trips with our family mascot, Piggy—a plush puppet Katie had given Tommy when he was five. Someone put Piggy on a low tree limb and the jays instantly flew over to check him out. And they looked the rest of us in the eyes—I can’t think of another bird I’ve seen with my family that charmed them this much, including the puffins they saw just a few feet away from the blind on Machias Seal Island. Now that I think about it, we have a photo of Piggy enjoying the puffins.
We didn’t get a photo of the scrub-jays with Piggy, but that image is seared into my mind’s eye.
We spent several hours in the park looking at Wood Storks, Common Ground Doves, and lots of other birds. Then, on our drive out, we saw a man just before the entrance sitting on a lawn chair with a bag of peanuts. The woman at the entrance gate told us that he came every day at that time to feed the scrub jays. As we drove away, we watched several jays alighting on his head and hands.
Way beyond their apparent friendliness, Florida Scrub-Jays have plenty of other endearing qualities from our human perspective. They’re extraordinarily home-centered, without the tiniest trace of restlessness or wanderlust—rather the Emily Dickinsons of the bird world. Many live longer than ten years, yet virtually none of even the most adventurous ever wander more than a few kilometers from their birthplace. Once a bird becomes a breeder, it remains on its territory for life. Their calls aren’t very musical, but I guess few of Emily Dickinson’s poems have ever been put to music either.
Unlike the western species of scrub jays, young Florida Scrub-Jays usually remain on their parents’ territory for a year or more to help raise their baby siblings before they become breeders themselves. These helpers feed nestlings and young fledglings, detect and mob predators, and defend the group territory. Small wonder that breeders with at least one helper successfully produce more young than do pairs without helpers. At 2 or 3 years of age, male helpers sometimes claim an adjoining territory and attract a nearby but unrelated female.
Florida Scrub-Jays need a larger territory than most birds their size—on average, about 9 hectares (almost 17 football fields). They’re habitat specialists, able to live only among stunted oak scrub habitat (also called sand pine scrub or rosemary scrub), and virtually never enter inappropriate habitat, whether it’s immediately adjacent to or even within their territory.
The porous sandy soil drains fast no matter how often it rains, keeping the habitat dry enough that frequent lightning fires historically kept the vegetation low and scrubby. That fast-draining soil also ensures that acorns buried in it won’t rot, making it ideal for caching them. Every member of the family caches several thousand acorns on the family territory every year, allowing them to feed on that autumnal crop through winter, spring, and summer, too. Acorns that are never retrieved remain in the soil to grow into new oak trees, provisioning for future generations as well. The mental capacity to remember and re-locate their caches makes me, a mere human, envious—I misplace my phone several time every day, something I guarantee no Florida Scrub-Jay has ever done.
Being homebodies intimately familiar with every square inch of their family territory was a perfect system for millennia, when Florida scrub habitat filled most of central Florida, right up until developers and fruit and sugar growers entered the scene and decimated their range. Now mere remnant islands of habitat remain amidst an ocean of theme parks, strip malls, housing developments, highways, airports, golf courses, agriculture, and other disturbances. Even where people leave patches of natural scrub, they usually suppress natural wildfires. Without managed burning to compensate, the scrub habitat becomes overgrown, pines take over, and the scrub jays must find somewhere else to go—a uniquely difficult task for such a unique homebody.
A current map of the Florida Scrub-Jay’s range would coincide pretty much exactly with a current map of remaining scrub habitat. Sadly, few of these scrub jays have unrelated families next door in all directions anymore, or even any remaining habitat next door. This makes it hard for young males to set up their own territories adjacent to their natal territory, and for young females to find unrelated, unattached males. Isolation of the scattered populations has led to the cultural development of “dialects”—scrub jays from the Atlantic Coast, central Florida, and southwestern Florida now have different vocalizations despite being separated by less than 100 miles.
The Florida Scrub-Jay is federally listed as Threatened, but it isn’t until a species is declared Endangered that legal protections kick in with enough teeth to prevent so much development in a shrinking range. Tragically, the political pressure in Florida to keep their only endemic bird from being listed as Endangered is massive.
Florida has the fastest growing population of any state even as homeowners’ insurance is getting hard to buy there because of increasing flood and hurricane damage associated with a warming planet. Meanwhile, the state prohibits the use of the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in any official documents. Such shortsightedness may make it hard for Floridians to appreciate a bird that spends so much time provisioning both for the coming seasons and also far into the future. And I guess it makes sense that a state depending on tourism and winter residents from further north wouldn’t find a bird’s home-centered ways and reluctance to travel even short distances appealing.
So Florida keeps growing and Florida Scrub-Jays keep declining. The very people who don’t plan for their own long-term futures are hardly going to make even small sacrifices to ensure the future of a bird whose homey ways and provisioning for the future simply don’t resonate with the only people with the power to protect it.