Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens)
|Size||Length: 27 - 31 cm (2)|
Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1).
The Florida scrub-jay is the rarest of five species belonging to the genus Aphelocoma, which translates as ‘smooth-hair’ and refers to the absence of the head crest possessed by some of the more ubiquitous North American jays (1) (3). The male Florida scrub-jay is slightly larger than the female but the plumage of both sexes is identically patterned with an attractive array of blues and greys (3) (4) (5). While the juveniles are similar in appearance, the dull grey head easily distinguishes them from the blue-headed adults (2) (5). Originally, the Florida scrub-jay was lumped together with the Western and Island scrub-jays as one species, but further to genetic studies, all three are now considered separate species (5).
The Florida scrub-jay is an all-year resident of fragmented habitat in peninsular Florida, USA (2) (3) (5).
This species is restricted to low-growing oak scrub habitat on sandy soils (5) (6). The vegetation structure is maintained by frequent fires with the most favourable habitat occurring five to fifteen years after a fire (2) (3). In the absence of fire, this community is replaced by dense pines and tall deciduous trees, which the Florida scrub-jay will not inhabit (2) (3) (5).
The Florida scrub-jay lives a co-operative lifestyle, with the offspring of each breeding pair usually remaining with the parent birds to ‘help out around the nest’ for at least a year (3) (5). The role of the immature jays is to assist in the feeding of hatchlings and to defend against predators and other territorial scrub-jays (5). These immature helpers are so important that without them, breeding pairs are unable to raise as many young (2) (3). Each Florida scrub-jay pair mates for life and builds a new nest each year between February and March. The nest is made from twigs and palm fibres, and is normally located in a low, dense shrub around one metre off the ground (3) (5). The female lays around three to four eggs, out of which the naked and vulnerable young hatch after about 18 days. Whilst the female tends to the nest, the male forages for food for the nestlings and its mate, and defends the nest, usually with the help of last years’ offspring. The nestlings fledge after another 18 days, but continue to be nurtured for up to three months, after which they remain with the parent birds to learn crucial skills, whilst helping to protect the group (3).
The Florida scrub-jay is a truly omnivorous species, consuming everything from acorns and berries, through to snakes, frogs and young birds, with a variety of arthropods in between (2) (3). Such a diverse range of food items requires a number of different foraging techniques, including picking insects off plants, hoarding acorns in the ground, scaring prey out of vegetation, and even pulling ticks from the backs of livestock and deer (3) (5). In fact, so comfortable is the Florida scrub-jay in acquiring food from a mammalian perch that, given the prospect of food, it will happily alight on a human hand, arm or head (3) (5).
The loss of 70 to 80 percent of oak scrub habitat to housing development, citrus groves and pasture has severely fragmented the historical range of the Florida scrub-jay (2) (3). The dispersal capabilities of this species across non-suitable habitat are very limited, with just one kilometre of forest or eight kilometres of non-scrub habitat being sufficient to permanently segregate populations (2). With the rise of development, fire is increasingly suppressed, causing suitable habitat to be replaced by unsuitable pine forest, in which the jay is much more vulnerable to predation (3). Furthermore, fragmentation and ever encroaching development has increased the number of fatal encounters with cats and vehicles, and exposure to disease (2) (3) (6). In response to these negative pressures, the population of Florida scrub-jay plummeted by more than 85 percent to an estimated 6,500 birds at the turn of this century (3).
Although classified as threatened on the Endangered Species Act and the subject of a recovery plan implemented in 1999, overall conservation efforts for the Florida scrub-jay have been poor. While 75 percent of the Florida scrub-jay population occurs on publicly owned land, much of it has not been subjected to fire for many years. Land acquisitions and appropriate habitat management are critical for the recovery of this species. While this is ongoing on a small scale, both public and private agencies and landowners need to work together to initiate controlled burns on a larger scale, with the ultimate aim of providing connections between remnant populations (3).
For further information on the conservation of the Florida scrub-jay see:
- National Audubon Society:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
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- Arthropods: a very diverse phylum (a major grouping of animals) that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
- Omnivorous: feeding on both plants and animals.
IUCN Red List (July, 2014)