Florida Scrub-Jay: Aphelocoma coerulescens
The only bird species unique to Florida, the Florida scrub-jay is a 12-inch-long, blue and gray crestless jay that lacks the black and white markings on the head, wings, and tail of the more common and widespread blue jay. A necklace of blue feathers separates the whiter throat from the gray breast. The head, wings, and long tail are blue, and the back is gray. Scrub-jays that are less than about 5 months old can be identified by their dusky brown head and neck, but there are no such physical traits that distinguish males from females.
Other species of scrub-jays range over much of the western United States and Mexico, but the physically and behaviorally unique Florida scrub-jay is restricted to scattered, often small and isolated patches of sand pine scrub, xeric oak scrub, and scrubby flatwoods, which occur on well-drained, sandy ridges in peninsular Florida. They have very specific habitat requirements. Scrub-jay habitat is characterized by short, shrubby oaks, open patches of sand, and few trees. The optimal average shrub height for scrub-jays is about 4 to 6 feet tall. The low, open habitat conditions preferred by scrub-jays and many other scrub plants and animals are maintained by periodic fires. While scrub-jays can be found in areas recently converted to residential developments, their survival and reproductive success typically are very poor in these areas. Habitat loss and degradation due to fire suppression, urbanization, and agriculture have caused widespread population declines throughout the Florida scrub-jay’s range, and the species is Federally-listed as Threatened.
Florida scrub-jays are non-migratory and live in family groups ranging in size from two to eight birds. Breeding pairs, which typically mate for life, establish permanent territories (averaging about 25 acres in size), which they defend against adjacent families. The breeding pair sometimes is accompanied by “helpers,” which include offspring from previous years and sometimes even birds "adopted" from other families. The helpers assist in defending the territory, nest, and young from neighboring scrub-jays and predators. They also help feed the nestlings and fledglings. This social behavior is referred to as “cooperative breeding.” Long-term studies have established that breeding pairs with helpers successfully raise more young than lone pairs. The breeding season typically extends from March through June. The nest, a shallow basket of twigs lined with palmetto fibers, is typically built about 3-10 feet above ground in one of the shrubby oaks. Scrub-jays are very sedentary, and young birds often establish territories within one to two miles from where they were hatched.
Florida scrub-jays are bold, curious birds that eat a variety of animal and plant items. Insects comprise a major food source during spring and summer and are particularly important for nestlings and fledglings. These birds also prey on other terrestrial invertebrates, and on small vertebrates including frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, birds' eggs, and even mice. Acorns produced by the shrubby oaks are an important food source, especially in the winter months, and scrub-jays cache acorns in sandy openings throughout their territory.