greglessardphotography.com: Articles


The Florida Scrub Jay: A Threatened Species
by Greg Lessard

Scrub Jay and Brazilian Pepper Bush #2
Scrub Jay and Brazilian Pepper Bush #2
The Florida Scrub Jay is a very special bird. It is found only in the scrub oak forests of Florida. These rare birds resemble their cousins the blue jay. Scrub jays are approximately a foot long from head to tail and they have a vibrant blue coloring, with grey on their bellies, throats and backs.

Scrub Jays are very intelligent birds that work together in family units. Two parent jays will claim a territory of approximately ten to twenty acres of scrub oak forest. They will raise a brood of chicks on that territory, training them to work as a team to scavenge for food. Scrub jays like to eat nuts and insects of all types. They will often gather an excess of food and bury it in holes all over their territory for later consumption. Usually there is one sentinel bird that keeps a look out for danger, while the rest of the family searches for food. If a sentinel spots danger it will alert the family by making a raspy croaking sound with its voice. The other members of the scrub jay family will shortly arrive to help defend their territory.


Scrub Jay and Brazilian Pepper Bush #1
Scrub Jay and Brazilian Pepper Bush #1
Yearling scrub jays stay in the territory to help their parents gather food for the family. Usually by the end of their second year, the parents will chase their offspring away from the territory. This helps to spread the population and insures that the there will be enough food for the next hatchlings. The parent scrub jays usually stay on the same ten to twenty acres for the rest of their lives. This can lead to problems for the scrub jay. The scrub oak forest that the jays depend on for survival is also prime land for building in Florida, because it is dry and not swampy. Once buildings are constructed in scrub jay territory, the birds struggle to survive.

With the building boom that is occurring throughout Florida, the future of the scrub jay is tenuous. Building permits are being issued at a record pace to accommodate the baby boomers who are beginning to retire and are making Florida their home. In 2006, Sarasota County had over 3300 new residences constructed! That statistic does not include the numerous commercial buildings that are being constructed to support the new homes. In Charlotte County, where the scrub jays in the accompanying photos were found, there were more than 2600 new homes built last year alone! The loss of habitat for scrub jays and other animals is clearly a growing concern.


Two Scrub Jays
Two Scrub Jays
In 2004, I had the opportunity to visit Rotonda, Florida for a week in February. My father took me for a walk to look for scrub jays that were in the neighborhood. Sure enough, we found a family of ten jays! They were magnificent birds. One was so curious and bold, that he even flew onto my father’s hat!

The following year, we visited the same family of jays in the same territory. They seemed to be doing quite well. We counted eight birds on two separate occasions. Noticing that some new homes were being constructed in the area, my dad notified local wildlife officials of the scrub jays and their location. Wildlife officials in Florida try very hard to protect the scrub jays. They try to keep track of the birds and the territories that they occupy. The officials will tag the birds and set up special scrub jay zones. These zones are often identified by large, yellow “Scrub Jay Crossing” signs along roadsides in Florida. Property owners in Florida must have their proposed building sites reviewed by wildlife officials if scrub jays are suspected to be living on the property. While these efforts may be helpful, the scrub jay population is in more danger than ever before.


Cleared Scrub Oak Lot
Cleared Scrub Oak Lot
In the winter of 2006, my father and I returned to visit the scrub jays again. This time we noticed that the birds had been tagged by wildlife officials (notice the multi colored bands around the jays’ legs). We also were only able to find two jays. Whether these two were the parent jays after they had driven off their young or were the only two remaining birds of the family is a question that has been on my mind since that last visit. One important change to their habitat had occurred. A major portion of their territory had been cleared for development! There were four house lots of approximately one acre each that were being developed. While I can’t say for sure that these house lots had contributed to the disappearance of the scrub jays, it certainly seems like a possible cause.

Some homeowners in Florida are trying to do their part to help the jays survive. Many people are landscaping with native plants that are part of the scrub forest that the jays desperately need. Hopefully, with proper care for scrub jays, their habitat and raised awareness of their plight, they will be able to survive long term.