A few years ago, I wrote a post about Florida Scrub Jays, an endangered relative of Western Scrub Jays found only in Florida – and in an ever-decreasing range. I’d spotted only one Florida Scrub Jay many years ago, in flight from a distance. So on a recent trip to one of their known habitats, I was determined to see one up close, and get some decent photographs at last. I’m pleased to report – mission accomplished!
It was surprisingly easy, too, once we found the right location. Though these birds are reasonably common throughout the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where we were spending time in conjunction with a trip to Kennedy Space Center, the refuge is very large (over 220 square miles) and scrub jays are pretty small. To even the odds a little, we visited a small bit of preserved scrubland nearby known as the Helen & Allan Cruikshank Sanctuary. At only 140 square acres with a very active scrub jay population, this sanctuary almost guarantees sightings.
What makes this sanctuary special is that it’s carefully managed to provide exactly the right habitat for Florida Scrub Jays. These birds need lands that experience wildfires every 3 – 10 years, to keep the trees from growing too tall and choking out the lower vegetation. By administering controlled burns every few years, officials can keep this habitat as close to pristine as possible, ensuring Florida Scrub Jays still have the ecosystem they need to thrive.
A few Florida Scrub Jay facts:
- These are truly social and familial birds. Pairs mate for life, and their young frequently stay with them for several years, helping to raise future broods. Much like meerkats, Florida Scrub Jays take turns “Sitting Sentinel” atop tall trees, alerting other members of the group when danger threatens.
- Florida Scrub Jays have three major strongholds left throughout the state of Florida: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Ocala National Forest, and the Lake Wales Ridge. The different sub-populations of Florida Scrub Jays give distinctly different vocalizations. A scrub jay in Ocala National Forest may sound very different than one in Merritt Island NWR.
- In addition to being social among themselves, Florida Scrub Jays are friendly with humans. Without prompting, they’re known to land near or on humans who visit their habitat. This can also be a problem, because their friendly behavior has encouraged humans to feed them. Some studies have shown that human feeding is actually detrimental. Florida Scrub Jays fed by humans appear to breed earlier in the season, and when their nestlings hatch, the insects they feed on are not yet available, causing malnutrition and starvation.
We spent only about 45 minutes at the sanctuary on a warm January morning, and spotted at least a dozen Florida Scrub Jays both close by and high in the trees. If you’re looking to add this bird to your life list, I can definitely recommend Helen & Allan Cruikshank Sanctuary - but please be respectful of the birds and environment when you visit. These threatened birds need all the protection and help they can get.