Florida Scrub-Jay

Aphelocoma coerulescens

(c) Glen Tepke
  • CORVIDAE
  • Crows, Ravens, Jays, Magpies
  • Passeriformes
  • Chara de Pecho Rayado
  • Geai à gorge blanche
Introduction

Found in young oak scrub, this unique species in the crow and jay family is Florida's only endemic bird. The Florida Scrub-Jay is a social bird, with a cooperative breeding system and a tendency to trust people, especially those with food. In 1995, the American Ornithologists' Union split it from the Western and Island Scrub-Jays. Their genus name, Aphelocoma, means "smooth hair," referring to their crestless heads.

Bird Sounds
Lang Elliot
Appearance Description

Location helps to identify this Scrub-Jay, because it will seldom leave Florida's brushy oak scrub. The wings, tail, head and neck are dull blue. The throat is white, bordered with a blue-gray bib. Both males and females look alike but juveniles have dull to dark brown upperparts. Compared to other scrub-jays, it has a white forecrown, bluer cheeks, and a paler back. It vaguely resembles a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata), but the Scrub-Jay is duller, has no crest, has longer legs, and lacks the bold black and white markings of the Blue Jay. The Florida Scrub-Jay is a medium-sized songbird, measuring 11 inches long with a 13.5 inch wingspan and weighing 2.8 ounces.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

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.

Habitat

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.

Feeding

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.

Reproduction

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.

Migration

The Florida Scrub-Jay does not migrate or even make short, seasonal movements.

  • 6,500
  • 6,500
Population Status Trends

BirdLife International estimates the population in 2005 at 8,000 birds; however, this number is an extrapolation of a 1993 population estimate published in 1996. Population fragments with fewer than 30 breeding pairs have about a 50% chance of extinction in the next 100 years. Widespread extirpations are probable along the central Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, where development is intense. Over the last century, the total population has probably declined by more than 85%, and since 1983 by 25%. In 2003, a petition to list the Florida Scrub Jay as Endangered cited a 31% loss between 1983 and 2002 in the Ocala National Forest. This claim needs further study, since the Ocala group is one of three core populations.

Conservation Issues

The future of the Florida Scrub-Jay depends on human management and preservation of Florida's oak scrub. This habitat is being consumed by housing and suburban development, citrus groves, pastures, and human recreation. Only 20-30% of it remains. Fire suppression makes protected habitat unsuitable, and cats and vehicles kill many jays. Predation rates are much higher in areas with older (15+ years) vegetation. Beleaguered populations are more vulnerable to natural disasters and diseases. Between 1979 and 1980, mortality from disease at Archbold Biological Station was 70%.

This scrub-jay was listed as Threatened in 1987, but its 1999 recovery plan has been poorly implemented. Because Critical Habitat has not been designated, protection mechanisms are weak. Population studies, vital to understanding the species' health, have been patchy. Petitions to up-list have been denied, based on a lack of evidence. In short, conservation efforts have been local and minor, despite the fact that 75% of all scrub-jays live on public lands. For example, Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve (west of Ocala on the Gulf Coast) has not had fire since 1955, as housing developments crowd around it. Accordingly, its scrub-jay population has fallen. State, federal, and private agencies should work together with private landowners to connect remnant populations, use controlled burns on a landscape scale, and monitor population trends.
Land acquisition activities have been ongoing to purchase the remaining privately owned oak scrub habitat that can support Florida Scrub-Jays and other wildlife. Audubon of Florida is assisting Pinellas County Utilities to restore a 12,000-acre site that hosts scrub-jays. At Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve, officials plan a prescribed burn for 2007/2008.

What You Can Do

Visit the colorful and gregarious Florida Scrub-Jay, which is fairly easy to find. Try the Ocala National Forest , an Important Bird Area, and host to one of the largest populations of these birds.

A wildlife festival can help you find the jays and learn updated information on their conservation. Try the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, hosted at Brevard Community College, Titusville, Florida, during the third full week in January.

Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Florida Scrub-Jays, as well as other species, in places like Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve. Learn more about the Important Bird Areas program in Florida, and how you can help.

Listing of this species under the Endangered Species Act has made it possible to learn critical information about the biology of the Florida Scrub-Jay. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our publicly owned wildlife resources. Learn the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help.

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Audubon of Florida has played a key role in the protection, research and management of the Florida Scrub-Jay and worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service to help develop a recovery plan.

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Woolfenden, Glen E.; Fitzpatrick, John W. 1996. Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens). The Birds of North America, No. 228 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.

Conservation Status References

Bibb, K., M. Jennings, and M. Knight. 2007. Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) 5-year review. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Southeast Region, Jacksonville FL.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 1999. South Florida multi-species recovery plan: Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens). Pages 4-261 to 4-290. Atlanta , GA. Accessed 17 August 2007.

Woolfenden, Glen E.; Fitzpatrick, John W. 1996. Florida Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens). The Birds of North America, No. 228 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.

Zattau, Dawn. "90-Day Finding on Petitions to Reclassify the Florida Scrub-Jay from Threatened to Endangered." Federal Registry 71:16 (25 January 2006) 4092-4097. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jacksonville Field Office. Accessed 18 August 2007.