The Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) is a 2.5 to 3-ounce, 12-inch-long, blue and gray crestless jay that is endemic
to peninsular Florida's xeric oak scrub and scrubby pine flatwoods. In fact, the Florida scrub-jay is the only bird species entirely restricted to the state of Florida. In the adult plumage, a necklace of blue feathers separates the whiter
throat from the gray underparts, and a white superciliary line or eyebrow often blends into a whitish forehead. The back is gray and the tail is long and loose in appearance. Scrub-jays less than about 5 months of age can be identified by
their dusky brown head and neck and shorter tail. However, in late summer and early fall, juvenile scrub-jays undergo a partial molt of body feathers that renders them indistinguishable from adults in the field. Adult male and female Florida
scrub jays are not distinguishable by plumage, but are differentiated by a distinct "hiccup" call vocalized only by females.
Florida scrub-jays occupy year-round territories averaging 22 acres in size. This species is one of the few cooperative breeding birds in the United States, whereby surviving fledgling scrub-jays usually remain with the breeding pair in their
natal territory as "helpers, forming a closely-knit, cooperative family group. Group size ranges from 2 to 8 birds, but pre-breeding numbers are usually reduced to either a pair with no helpers or families of 3 or 4 individuals (a pair plus
one or two helpers). Helpers participate in scanning for predators, territorial defense against neighboring scrub-jay groups, predator-mobbing, and the feeding of both nestlings and fledglings.
Because of their cooperative breeding strategy, Florida scrub-jays typically delay mating until at least 2 or 3 years of age. Nesting is quite synchronous, normally ranging from March 1 through June 31 and nests are usually placed in shrubby oaks,
1 to 2 meters in height. Scrub- jay clutches usually contain 3 or 4 eggs, are incubated for 17 to 18 days, and fledging occurs 16 to 19 days after hatching.
Fledglings remain dependent upon adults for food for up to 2 months after leaving the nest. Florida scrub-jays usually live their entire lives within a short distance of where they were hatched. Usually, a male pairs with an unpaired female within
a portion of his natal territory ("budding") or within a few territories of his natal territory. Young females typically disperse from their natal territories earlier than males and wander greater distances from home before pairing with a
male. However, most Florida scrub-jays pair and become breeders within two territories of their natal ground; most dispersals are two miles or less, and in suitable habitat, more than 95 percent of all observed scrub-jay dispersals are 5 miles
or less in distance.
Scrub-jay dispersal behavior is influenced by the intervening landscape. Protected scrub habitats will most effectively sustain Florida scrub-jay populations if they are interspersed within a matrix of surrounding habitats that can be utilized
and traversed by scrub-jays. Brushy pastures, scrubby corridors along railway and country road right-of-ways, and open, burned pine flatwoods provide links for colonization among scrub-jay populations. However, expansive bodies of water, dense
forest, urban development, suburban residential areas, shopping malls, major highways, and treeless, wide-open pastures inhibit dispersal movement of Florida scrub-jays.
Florida scrub-jays forage mostly on or near the ground, often along the edges of natural or Man-made openings. Animal food items consist primarily of terrestrial insects, but may include a wide array of species weighing up to 1/3 the body weight
of a scrub-jay including, tree frogs, lizards, snakes, bird eggs and nestlings, and juvenile mice.
Acorns are extremely important in the diet of Florida scrub-jays, especially from September through March. During this time jays harvest and cache thousands of scrub oak acorns throughout their territory. Each scrub-jay may cache 6,000 to 8,000
acorns per year. Acorns are typically buried beneath the surface of the sand in openings in the scrub during fall, and retrieved and consumed in winter and early spring.
The Florida scrub-jay was first listed by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission as a State-listed threatened species in 1975. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) subsequently listed it as federally threatened pursuant to the Endangered
Species Act in 1987. A 1993 statewide census documented about 4,000 breeding pairs of Florida scrub-jays remaining in Florida, including 374 pairs in mainland Brevard County. Coupled with the estimated 850 breeding pairs of scrub-jays on the
Federal lands of Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brevard County's 1993 Florida scrub-jay population was the highest of any county in the state. However, State-wide Florida
scrub-jay population trends are closely correlated with scrub habitat loss and the 1993 population estimate of 4,000 breeding pairs was no more than 15% of the pre-settlement population estimate. In spite of legislated protection by the Endangered
Species Act, the most precipitous Florida scrub-jay population decline has occurred during the last 15 to 20 years with an estimated 25 to 50 percent reduction in jay numbers. Recent studies in southern Brevard County have documented a decline
in scrub-jay breeding pairs of more than 33 % since 1993.
Florida scrub-jay densities may increase in sparsely developed suburban areas where many patches of scrub remain and build out is 33 percent or less. These population increases in modified habitat probably result from supplemental food sources
and the initial creation of openings in the scrub and visual buffers (buildings) to neighboring jay families. However, as development escalates toward complete build out, the survivorship of fledgling jays declines and failed nesting attempts
increase. Because adult scrub-jays are long-lived, resident pairs often persist for years in some of the most densely human-populated Florida suburbs. Although these breeding pairs may continue to nest, they incur high nest failure rates and
all suburban scrub-jay populations studied are declining. Annual nesting productivity must average at least 2.0 young fledged per pair for a population of scrub-jays to remain stable for the long-term.
Scrub habitats comprise an increasingly imperiled ecosystem characterized by nutrient-poor soils, periodic drought, seasonally high rainfall, frequent wild fires, and plants and animals endemic to Florida. Sand pines are the dominant tree species
indicative of sand pine scrub, while the most abundant and conspicuous plant indicators of xeric oak scrub are four species of shrubby, stunted oaks: sand live oak, myrtle oak, Chapman's oak, and scrub oak.
Scrub is found on ancient dune ridges left thousands of years ago by retreating seas. Scrub habitats associated with Florida's barrier islands, mainland coasts, Ten Mile Ridge, and Lake Wales Ridge are some of the most endangered natural communities
in the United States, with estimates of habitat loss since pre-settlement times ranging from 70 to more than 85 percent. Brevard County's scrub habitats have been reduced by more than 70 percent, mostly during the past 20 years. The most important
and pervasive causes of scrub habitat loss are commercial/ residential development and citrus conversion. Much of the remaining parcels of scrub are fragmented and in various states of degradation due primarily to widespread fire suppression.
As of 1994, about 13,000 acres of scrub remained on the Brevard County mainland, complimented by around 16,800 acres on the Federal lands on Kennedy Space Center and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and approximately 6,500 acres on Cape
Canaveral Air Force Station. In 1999, some of the most expansive acreages of xeric oak scrub found within the State of Florida, remain in Brevard County.