Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Within the Florida peninsula, the range is restricted to scrub-oak habitat, which has grown for 5-15 years after natural fire. This ecosystem once covered large tracts of the peninsula, almost all of which the scrub-jay occupied. Today, populations are scattered over remnant patches, with the greatest concentrations in and around the Ocala National Forest, the Lake Wales Ridge, and Merrit Island/Cape Canaveral. Historically, the range covered 39 counties. Based on various surveys, some dating back to 1993, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported in 2006 that this scrub-jay was extirpated or functionally extinct in at least 14 counties and was maintaining 30 or fewer breeding pairs in another 21 counties.
This songbird resides permanently in Florida's brushy oak scrub. Natural fire every 5 to 10 years creates this habitat by suppressing the growth of pines and tall deciduous trees. Under dry conditions, the Chapman oak, Florida rosemary, myrtle oak, runner oak, rusty lyonia, and sand live oak rarely reach over 6 feet tall. Few grasses and forbes grow in the sandy soil, and palmettoes are scattered between the trees. This ecosystem is itself endangered and harbors 18 plants found only in Florida, where they are Endangered or threatened. In about 20 years, fire suppression pushes the Scrub-Jay out. The size of the year-round territory, usually 12 to 22 acres, depends on the size and age of the Scrub-Jay family maintaining it.
A resourceful and omnivorous predator, the Florida Scrub-Jay consumes acorns, anoles, bees, berries, young birds, bird eggs, bush crickets, flies, grasshoppers, mice, seeds, small snakes, snails, spiders, tree frogs, and many other items. Landing on deer, cattle, and swine, it pulls off ticks. It will even rest on the human hand, head, or shoulder to take food. Many acorns, over 6,000 per bird, are stored in sand, pine straw, palmetto fronds, or Spanish moss. It inspects plants, bare ground, and plant litter for prey, and will even thrash through the vegetation to scare prey. Holding large food in its feet on a firm perch, the jay dismantles it with a chisel-like bill.
This species employs a cooperative breeding system at least half the time. Up to six young jays help the breeding pair by feeding young, defending the territory and mobbing predators. Almost all helpers come from previous broods and most are a year old, but seven year olds have been recorded helping. Nests with helpers raise more young than a lone pair.
Florida Scrub-Jays mate for life and maintain their bonds by feeding each other, sitting on guard duty together, and defending the territory together. During breeding, males defend the nest and feed their mates and nestlings, while the female tends the nest. New pairs form in spring or fall, and nesting starts in late February and early March. Every year, a new nest is built, usually one meter from the ground, with twigs and palm fibers used for lining.
After 18 days of incubation, 3-4 greenish eggs, splotched with reddish brown, hatch, revealing naked and defenseless young. These Scrub-Jays fledge in about 18 days and continue to receive care for almost three months. Most juveniles remain on their parents' territory, learning foraging, nesting, and defensive skills.
The Florida Scrub-Jay does not migrate or even make short, seasonal movements.