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Saving the Florida Scrub Jay

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Florida Scrub-Jays, like the one shown here, are amazingly beautiful creatures.

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The Florida scrub-jay is in peril. Less than 10 percent remain as development pushes them out of the only place they can survive: dense scrub oak and saw palmettos packed into the dry sandy hills of the Florida scrub.

In the 1920s, roughly 100,000 scrub-jays were counted in Florida. A 1992 Archbold Biological Station census counted 10,000; and in 2011, another count saw a population reduction to 6,000 according to Ralph Risch, a biologist specializing in the species for the Florida Forest Service.

Initially the citrus industry displaced scrub; now development encroaches. Decades of fire suppression has left the remaining scrub too overgrown for the jays to forage and reproduce successfully.

For the long-term survival of a Florida scrub-jay population, the species requires 750 acres of contiguous scrub. The juvenile females must disperse to form new families, and they need somewhere to go. Scrub-jays do better with multiple territories next to each other.

Scrub-jays have astonishing memories. Each will store 6,000 to 9,000 acorns individually in the sand and mark every location with a pebble, leaf or twig to find later in the winter. And they do, recovering more than half. Its curiosity and fearlessness makes it easily hand-tamed.

The male and female scrub-jays look alike to the human eye, but their plumage reflects colors in the ultraviolet spectrum, which birds see. In the UV spectrum, males and females look very different. The best way to spot a female is her call: a fast hiccing sound, which varies with each population.  Not very good flyers, they hop between scrub bushes and walk.

What is prime scrub-jay real estate? Three scrubby oak species make up 67 percent of the plant community: 34 percent sand live oak, 26 percent myrtle oak and seven percent Chapmans oak.  Florida scrub-jays build their nests in these oaks, preferring Chapman’s or sand live oak with various vine species growing over and through the branches to provide a screen for nests.  Saw palmetto, rusty lyonia, silk bay and sand pine comprise the rest of the vegetation.

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