Florida Scrub Jays
Florida Scrub Jay Habitat
The scrub jay is one of Florida's friendliest songbirds, as well as one of its most threatened. Although scrub jays thrive in the western U.S. and Mexico, east of the Mississippi they exist only in Florida.
At one time, the range of the Florida scrub jay extended over 7,000-square miles. But now so much of its habitat has been transformed for agricultural and urban use that the scrub jay population has dwindled dramatically.
For example, the healthy population of birds that once ranged all along the Atlantic coast has been fragmented into isolated communities. In 1987, the situation was serious enough that the Florida scrub jay was classified as a threatened species.
As their name implies, scrub jays live in a highly specialized territory, one where tall trees provide canopy cover over no more than 20 percent of an area.
In ideal scrub jay habitat, oaks between three and eight feet tall blanket between 50 to 90 percent of an area, while sparse vegetation no higher than six inches (or perhaps only bare ground) covers the remaining region.
Fire is essential for maintaining scrub jay habitat. An area needs to be burned every 5 to 20 years in order to keep scrub vegetation at the proper height.
As scrub jay habitat becomes more scarce, the birds are seemingly able to adapt, and to live indefinitely in recreational and residential regions as long as some scrub, open or green areas exist nearby.
The Florida scrub looks similar to the far more common blue jay. Both are the same size, about 12 inches in length, but the scrub jay is paler in color and lacks a crest. The scrub jay also lacks the white wing spots and white tail feather tips typical of the blue jay.
Instead, the scrub jay wears a collar of blue feathers that separates its white throat from its gray underparts, and it has a white line over the eye that blends into a whitish forehead. The white forehead and eyebrows distinguish the Florida from those of western states.
Highly intelligent birds, scrub jays sometimes become very tame and some like to be hand-fed peanuts. At the golf courses where families of the birds reside, scrub jays will sometimes boldly perch on a person's shoulder or head in hopes of a handout.
It's not uncommon for entire neighborhoods to adopt families of friendly scrub jays, a concern of some conservationists who feel the birds should not be fed by humans. A feeding ban of any sort is not likely to work, since both scrub jays and people like interacting with each other.
Although scrub jays will happily take peanuts from people, their normal diet is quite varied. It includes both plants and animals. Acorns, the main staple during fall and winter, are consumed year-round.
In spring and summer, insects become the main food source, supplemented by frogs, mice, toads, lizards, snakes and birds' eggs. Corn, sunflower seeds, saw palmetto drupes and greenbrier berries are also eaten when available.
The family life of scrub jays is unusually complex. A family, which consists of a breeding pair and some of their offspring, establishes its own territory and strongly protects it from other scrub jays. A family's territory may average between five and 50 acres, though 25 acres is most common.
The breeding pair, which mate for life, are usually around three or four years of age. Their mating season is short, from early March to late May and sometimes into June.
A nest is built between three and 10 feet above ground in one of the scrub oaks. Nests, made of twigs and lined with finer material, are used only once. The average clutch is three greenish, brown-spotted eggs which hatch after about 17 days.
Seventeen is also the average number of days that it takes for the nestlings to fledge from the time they hatch. The juveniles are distinctive, with a dusky brown head and neck that lasts until their first molt, following the first summer.
Unlike any of Florida's other songbirds, both non-nesting females but particularly males remain part of the family for several years. These hangers-on serve as valuable helpers by defending the family territory and feeding the nestlings and fledglings.
However, helpers do not assist in nest building or incubating. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that breeding pairs with helpers raise their young more successfully than do birds without helpers.