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Florida Scrub-Jay Species Information
(Aphelocoma coerulescens)

Description: The Florida scrub-jay is a gray and blue bird about the size of a mockingbird, usually measuring 10-12 inches in length and weighing 2½ ounces. The head, neck, nape, and tail are pale blue while the back and belly are pale gray. They are similar in appearance to the more common blue jay, but lack the crest, white tipped feathers, and black bars. Males and females are similar in appearance. Juveniles are similar to the adults, but lack the blue on the crown and nape. The oldest reported scrub-jay is 15½ years, but they rarely live that long.

Status: Florida scrub-jays are protected by The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under the Endangered Species Act and Chapter 39, Florida Administrative Code, respectively. The Florida scrub-jay has been listed as Threatened by the state of Florida since 1975 and since 1987 by FWS. This protection makes it illegal to possess, harm, or harass Florida scrub-jays.

Range: The Florida scrub-jay only occurs in peninsular Florida. Historically, the Florida scrub-jay existed in 39 counties south of and including, Levy, Gilchrist, Alachua, Clay, and Duval with the exception of Monroe. They have become locally extinct in 9 of these counties including Alachua, Broward, Clay, Dade, Duval, Gilchrist, Hendry Pinellas, and St. Johns Counties. It is estimated that scrub-jay populations have decreased by 25 to 50% in the last 15 years, but the decline over the last 100 years may be as high as 80%.

Habitat: The Florida scrub-jay is entirely dependent on scrub. Scrub is a unique vegetation community composed of plants that are adapted to well-drained, sandy, nutrient poor soil. Scrub vegetation is dependent on periodic wildfire and is able to withstand high seasonal rainfall and periods of extended drought. Scrub is characterized by several species of oaks and pines.  Optimal scrub-jay habitat occurs when the oaks are between 3 to 10 feet tall and there are un-vegetated, sandy openings. Scrub-jays will also use scrubby flatwoods (a mixture of scrub vegetation and pine trees), if the pine canopy is open. In Charlotte County, scrub-jays live in scrub, scrubby flatwoods and even suburban areas that are adjacent to scrub. The three dominant tree species in Charlotte County scrub include sand live oak, Chapman oak, and myrtle oak. Scrub-jays are non-migratory birds that defend permanent territories averaging 23 acres in size, depending on the quality of the vegetation community and the size of the family group. Territories increase in size as the family group grows and when the habitat is not optimal.

Diet: The Florida scrub-jay is an omnivore, commonly eating insects, tree frogs, reptiles, berries, seeds, and acorns. Insects compose the majority of the scrub-jay’s diet in the spring and summer. In the winter, when insects are scarce, acorns from several species of oaks comprise the majority of their diet. Each scrub-jay harvests and buries 6000 to 8000 acorns during August to November for use throughout the year. Scrub-jays forage on the ground, rarely pursuing insects in the air.

Social System: Florida scrub-jays live in family groups. Each group is made up of a breeding male and female and usually several helpers. These helper birds are offspring of the breeding pair from previous years. The helpers participate in defense of the territory, sentinel (guard) duties, mobbing of predators, and care of the nestlings. This cooperative breeding benefits the parent birds by increasing defense and care of the young, while the helpers learn parenting skills prior to raising their own young. Helpers stay in their parent’s territory for at least 1 year. A scrub-jay helper is elevated to breeder status once it has acquired its own breeding territory. This can be accomplished in several ways. A helper can replace a breeder on another territory, create a territory on a section of its parent’s territory, inherit breeding status after the death of a parent, or establish a new territory between existing territories. Scrub-jays usually will not disperse more than 5 miles from their parent’s territory

Reproduction and Hatchlings: Florida scrub-jay pairs are monogamous. Most Florida scrub-jays breed for the first time when they are between 2 and 4 years of age. Nesting occurs from March to June when 3 to 4 eggs are laid in cup-shaped nests. The nests are constructed in shrubby oaks 3 to 7 feet from the ground. The female incubates the eggs for 17 days until hatching. Both parents and helpers bring food to the nestlings that remain in the nest for 16 to 21 days after hatching. Predators including raccoons, cats, snakes, blue jays, and crows eat the eggs and hatchlings. Nest predation is generally higher in suburban areas than in more isolated areas.

Threats: Predators of adult scrub-jays include domestic cats, bobcats, raptors, owls, and snakes. However, the biggest threat to the scrub-jay is habitat loss and degradation due to the construction of buildings and roads. As development increases, habitats become fragmented and can lead to the isolation of populations or leave individuals without mates. Scrub is frequently converted into agricultural fields, especially citrus groves, and housing developments. In addition, when natural fires are suppressed, trees grow too tall and dense for scrub jays to forage and nest successfully. Scrub-jays can sometimes exist in small scrub areas around development, but often face increased stress including predation by house cats, collisions with cars, poisoning, and increased disturbance by people.

What You Can Do to Help: The Florida scrub-jay exists only in Florida. Without our help it may become extinct. There are several things you can do to benefit scrub-jays. Watch out for scrub-jays and other wildlife while you are driving. If you are planning to build a structure where there are scrub-jays please call FWC or Charlotte County Natural Resources for advice. Keep your cats indoors to prevent them from killing scrub-jays. Limit the use of pesticides around your house; pesticides may kill the food that the scrub-jay depends upon. Continue to read about Florida scrub-jays and other wildlife at the library or on the Internet. Suggested Internet sites include: http://www.myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/imperiled/profiles/birds/florida-scrub-jay/ and http://www.fws.gov/northflorida//Species-Accounts/Fla-Scrub-Jay-2005.htm

Selected References:

Fitzpatrick, J.W., G.E. Woolfenden, and M.T. Kopeny. 1991. Ecology and development-related habitat requirements of the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens coerulescens). Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Nongame Wildlife Program Technical Report No. 8.

Woolfenden, G.E. 1984. The Florida scrub-jay: Demography of a cooperative-breeding bird. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J.


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