For the Birds Radio Program: Florida Scrub-Jay
I love corvids. Jays, crows, magpies, ravens–they can’t be beat in terms of intelligence, complex social systems, and beauty. One of them, the Florida Scrub-Jay, has a special place in my heart on two counts. When I added this lovely bird to my lifelist on March 28, 1999, at Lake Kissimmee State Park in Florida, it was #600 on my lifelist–a milestone I’d been longing to reach since I started birding in 1975 and read an article by Roger Tory Peterson about the ‘‘600 Club.’‘ How could I not feel a special warmth toward the bird that helped me reach this goal? And especially because the little group of scrub-jays we found came right in to check out my family. One even landed on the head of my son Tommy’s ‘’Piggy,’‘ a plush puppet that was our family’s much-loved mascot.
I saw my next Florida Scrub-Jays in 2001, when I was in Florida for a more somber occasion–a memorial for my beloved uncle, who had died 6 months earlier. Every morning while I was down there, I’d go for a walk with my Aunt Ann, my uncle’s dearest friend Jimmy, and sometimes a few of Ann’s friends, and we’d bring peanuts to ‘’feed the birds.’‘ When my aunt told me about this daily pastime, I never dreamed that the birds I’d be going out to feed each day were Florida Scrub-Jays! What a delight. I took bazillions of photos of them perched on Ann and Jimmy’s hand or head, and nice close-ups of them in the native scrub, but my hard drive crashed before I’d backed up the photos, and I was left with only one photo I found on a file I had backed up.
Florida Scrub-Jays may be dear to me for personal reasons, but they’re extraordinary and special for other reasons as well. Their complex social structures have been investigated by a host of ornithologists, led by two heroes of mine, Glen Woolfenden, Distinguished Research Professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa, and John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
Ironically for such an intelligent, curious, and popular bird, the Florida Scrub-Jay is in dire trouble. By the 1980s, scientists estimated that the entire population had plummeted by 80 percent to 90 percent from historic numbers, and the population continued to drop in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving Florida with only about 3,000 breeding families today. They’re getting close to the danger point for losing critical genetic information. The cause of their decline is the destruction of its natural scrub habitat for development and agriculture. Florida Scrub-Jay families stay together for longer than a single generation–young help their parents for a year or more before establishing their own families, and these birds become very attached to the area where they grew up, so they don’t adapt well when their homes are destroyed.
As in the case of the Sage Grouse, the federal government is going to make a decision next year about whether the status of this rapidly disappearing bird should be upgraded to ‘’Endangered’‘ from ‘’Threatened.’‘ To me, there’s simply no question that a species that has declined as dramatically as this one, and continues to steadily decline, and has such a dangerously small population right now, should be listed as Endangered. Otherwise, the Endangered Species Act has lost its meaning and value. To read more about the decline of the Florida Scrub-Jay. I put a photo and some links to information about this friendly and deserving bird on my daily blog yesterday—There’s a link to it on my webpage at www.lauraerickson.com