The last scrub jay in Hillsborough County?

The Florida scrub jay, a species found in the state and nowhere else in the world, has dwindled steadily over the decades as its habitat has given way to agriculture, houses, shopping centers and pavement. 

A 2010 survey estimated that 7,500 to 10,000 scrub jays remained in peninsular Florida, mainly in four large populations. The rest are isolated in smaller populations where they can’t thrive, so those groups are dying out.

Six years ago, just four scrub jays – all thought to be males – were believed to live in Hillsborough County. Now, apparently, only one bird remains. It lives in the Golden Aster Nature Preserve near Gibsonton. It’s the only one that wildlife photographer Russell McBurnie sees there on his frequent visits and he said he sees it about every time he’s out there. It tends to hang out at the top of the scrub.

Biologists have banded it, but its sex and age are unknown. Unlike many other bird species, male and female scrub jays have similar blue, gray and white markings, making it difficult to determine the sex without seeing them interact with their families. The males are slightly bigger, and the females make a hiccup-like call that distinguishes them from the males. When biologists band the birds, they may also take blood samples to determine the sex.

Scrub jays live in dry, sandy oak scrubland where the trees are not too tall or too dense. They nest low to the ground and forage for bugs, lizards, frogs and acorns, and they take turns on watch, ready to warn the others when a hawk is above or a snake is below. Pairs mate for life and their offspring stay around for a couple of years to help raise young and guard the territory. They eventually fly off to find mates and establish their own territories.

Territories range from about 15 acres to upward of 40 acres, though typically the birds live in 25 acres of good quality scrub habitat, says Todd Mecklenborg, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who works to preserve and expand the scrub jay population. Biologists figure an average of 2.5 birds in a family group occupy each territory.

“These guys, they’re very despotic. They’re a lot like Americans, they’re very greedy,” Mecklenborg says. “They try to defend as large a territory as possible. The bigger the sandbox, the more resources you have, the larger your family group can be, the better your offspring perform in future generations.’’

The birds are on the federal threatened species list, but there’s some hope for the state’s largest colonies, where the population appears to be stable and even growing. Mecklenborg said that the 2010 survey by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated scrub jays had established 1,000 to 1,200 territories in the Ocala population. As many as 1,500 may exist now, a survey underway suggests. The next largest group occupies a wildlife refuge on Merritt Island, with about 250 territories in 2010 and an average of 300 now. The next largest habitat is at Cape Canaveral, with about 130 to 150 territories. And the cluster around Archbold Biological Station near Sebring has about 130 territories.

“After that, it really tails off,’’ Mecklenborg said. “Ninety percent of territories are very small, 10 or to 20 at the most.’’

They will die out with the resident birds, which generally live about six to eight years, though they have been known to live more than 15 years. Mecklenborg says his agency conducted a population viability analysis to determine the minimum number of territories the birds need to survive long-term and decided that they need at least 80, though 100 territories would be better in order to prevent inbreeding, which leads to more mutations in the offspring.
The lone scrub jay in Golden Aster Nature Preserve has a well-kept home. Workers with the Hillsborough County Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department keep the scrub from growing too tall and thick by staging controlled burns, staggered so that the birds can have a place to live while the burned land grows back to a suitable state.

“We’re continuing to maintain habitat for that future time frame when perhaps the conservation strategy that’s being led by the feds, that maybe someday that will indicate that we need to re-establish some in Hillsborough County,’’ says Ken Bradshaw, field operations manager for the department. “When that day comes we intend to have the habitat ready.’’

Six years ago, three of the four known scrub jays in Hillsborough occupied the Golden Aster preserve. The fourth lived in Little Manatee River State Park near the southern county line. 

“As far as I know there are no jays there,’’ says biologist Vivienne Handy, founder of Quest Ecology, an environmental consulting firm based in Wimauma.
However, biologists with Quest found a mated pair at the Golden Aster preserve last year. But they were not successful at raising babies.

“The nest failed or the kids did not survive,’’ says Handy. “We don’t know what that may be due to.”

Because Golden Aster is isolated from other scrub habitats, it’s not ideal for supporting a viable population, Handy says. 
“They’ve also had an issue with feral cats out there, which are pretty much a death sentence for birds like scrub jays,” Handy says.

Handy says that Hillsborough County isn’t a great place for scrub jays, though it should be.

“All their habitat was allowed to be developed,” she says.
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.