North Florida Ecological Services Office
Southeast Region

Species Account/Biologue


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FLORIDA SCRUB-JAY

Aphelocoma coerulescens

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo of a pair of Florida scrub-jays.

USFWS photo of Florida scrub-jays.

FAMILY:   Corvidae

STATUS:   Threatened (Federal Register, June 3, 1987)                                                                      

DESCRIPTION: Florida scrub-jays are 25- to 30-centimeters (12-inches) long and are similar in size and shape to the more common and widespread blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) but differ significantly in coloration.  Unlike the blue jay, scrub-jays lack a crest and conspicuous white-tipped wing and tail feathers, black barring and bridle of the blue jay.  The Florida scrub-jay's head, nape, wings, and tail are pale blue, and is pale grey on its back and belly.  Its throat and upper breast are lightly striped and bordered by a pale blue-grey "bib" (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1996a).  The sexes of Florida scrub-jays are not distinguishable by plumage, and males average only slightly larger than females (Woolfenden 1978).  Scrub-jays are omnivorous, eating almost anything they can catch.  Insects comprise the majority of the animal diet throughout most of the year (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1984).  Acorns are by far the most important plant food (Fitzpatrick et al. 1991); surplus acorns are frequently cached in the ground (DeGange et al. 1989).

REPRODUCTION AND DEVELOPMENT: Florida scrub-jays have a social structure that involves cooperative breeding, a trait that the western North American species of scrub-jays do not exhibit (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1984).  Florida scrub-jays live in groups ranging from two (a single mated pair) up to large extended families of eight adults and one to four juveniles.  Fledgling scrub-jays remain with the breeding pair in their natal territory as "helpers," forming a closely-knit cooperative family group.  Pre-breeding numbers are generally reduced to either a pair with no helpers or families of three or four individuals (a pair plus one or two helpers).

To become a breeder, a scrub-jay must acquire a territory and mate.  Evidence presented by Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick (1984) suggests that Florida scrub-jays are permanently monogomous.  The pair retains ownership and sole breeding privileges in their particular territory year after year.  Courtship to form the pair is lengthy and ritualized, and involves posturing and vocalizations made by the male to the female (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1996a).  Copulation between the pair is generally out of sight of other jays (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1984).  Age at first breeding varies from 1 to 7 years, although most individuals become breeders between 2 and 4 years of age (Fitzpatrick and Woolfenden 1988).  Persistent breeding populations of Florida scrub-jays exist only where there are scrub oaks in sufficient quantity to provide an ample winter acorn supply, cover from predators, and nest sites during the spring (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1996a).   They typically nest at the edge of an oak thicket, near an open area.

During the breeding season, which runs from March through June, average production of young is two fledglings per pair, per year (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1990; Fitzpatrick et al. 1994), and the presence of helpers improves fledgling success (Mumme 1992).  Annual productivity must average at least two young fledged per pair for a population of scrub-jays to maintain long-term stability (Fitzpatrick et al.  1991).

RANGE AND POPULATION LEVEL:   The Florida scrub jay is endemic to peninsular Florida.  The estimated population is between 7,000 to 11,000 individuals (Breininger 1989; Fitzpatrick et al. 1991; Fitzpatrick et al. 1994).  Scrub has been significantly reduced by development activity and now typically occurs only in scattered and often small patches in peninsular Florida (Fitzpatrick et al. 1991).  Florida scrub-jay populations formerly inhabited 39 of 40 peninsular Florida counties, from Levy, Gilchrist, Alachua, Clay, and Duval Counties southward.  Its range currently occurs from Flagler, Marion, and Citrus counties south to Collier, Glades, and Palm Beach Counties, with the largest remaining populations in Brevard County (especially coastal scrubs of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Kennedy Space Center), Highlands County (near Sebring, Lake Placid, and Venus, and on Avon Park Air Force Range), and in Marion County (at Ocala National Forest).

HABITAT: The Florida scrub-jay lives only in the scrub and scrubby flatwoods habitats of Florida.  This type of habitat grows only on nearly pure, excessively well-drained sandy soils, and occurs along present coastlines in Florida, on paleodunes of the high central ridges and other ancient shorelines of the Florida Peninsula, and inland on scattered alluvial deposits bordering several major rivers.  This species' habitat is dominated by a layer of evergreen oaks [myrtle oak (Quercus myrtifolia) and/or Archbold oak (Q. inopina), sand live oak (Q. geminata), Chapman oak (Q. chapmanii), and runner oak (Q. minima)], rusty lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea), and Florida rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides).  This layer is rarely greater than two meters in height, except where fire has been suppressed.  Ground cover is sparse, dominated by saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and sand palmetto (Sabal etonia).  Bare sand patches are essential for foraging and acorn-caching.  Slash pines (Pinus elliottii) and sand pines (P. clausa) are widely scattered with  usually less than 15 percent cover (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1996a).

REASONS FOR CURRENT STATUS: The major cause of the decline of the Florida scrub-jay has been habitat destruction by humans.  The decline probably began in the mid-1800s when scrub was cleared for towns, citrus groves, and cleared pastures.  The destruction of scrub accelerated throughout the 1900s, especially after 1950, for the development of air fields, phosphate mines, pine plantations, military installations, super highways, mobile home parks, shopping malls, rocket-launch complexes, tourist resorts, golf courses, and theme parks.  Fire suppression accompanying human settlement further reduced usable habitat throughout the species' original range (Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1996a).  By 1983, Florida scrub-jays were extirpated from 7 counties (Cox 1987), including Broward, Dade, Duval, Gilchrist, Hendry, Pinellas, and St. Johns.  By 1993, the species was considered extirpated from Alachua and Clay County, and less than 10 breeding pairs remained in 6 other counties (Flagler, Hardee, Hernando, Levy, Orange, and Putnam (Fitzpatrick et al. 1994).  Recent information indicates that there are at least 12 to 14 breeding pairs of scrub-jays located within Levy County, higher than previously thought (K. Miller, FWC, pers. comm. 2004), and there was at least one breeding pair of scrub-jays remaining in Clay County (K. Miller, FWC, pers. comm. 2004).  A scrub-jay was documented in St. Johns County as recently as 2003 (J.B. Miller, FDEP, in litt. 5/13/03).  Populations are close to becoming extirpated in Gulf coast counties (from Levy south to Collier) (Fitzpatrick et al. 1994; Woolfenden and Fitzpatrick 1996a).  Based on the amount of destroyed scrub habitat, scrub-jay population loss along the Lake Wales Ridge is 80 percent or more since pre-European settlement (Fitzpatrick et al. 1991).  Since the early 1980s, Fitzpatrick et al. (1994) estimated that in the northern third of the species' range, the scrub-jay has declined somewhere between 25 and 50 percent.  The species may have declined by as much as 25 to 50 percent in the last decade alone (Stith et al. 1996).

MANAGEMENT AND PROTECTION: All concerned federal agencies know of the presence of the scrub-jay on lands they manage, and are aware of the bird's habitat needs.  The Service is working closely with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Canaveral Air Force Station,  and the Ocala National Forest to make sure their management plans are in keeping with habitat requirements of the Florida scrub-jay.  Elsewhere the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) is working with state and local governmental entities to ensure proper fire management of scrub acreage purchased for preservation.  Private landowners wishing to develop scrub habitat are working with the Service to conserve scrub habitat through the provisions of sections 7 and 10 of the Endangered Species Act.

REFERENCES:

Breininger, D.R.  1989.  A new population estimate for the Florida scrub jay on Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.  Fla. Field Nat. 17:25-31.

Cox, J.A.  1987.  Status and distribution of the Florida scrub jay.  Fla Ornithol. Soc. Spec. Publ. No. 3.

DeGange, A.R., J.W. Fitzpatrick, J.N. Layne, and G.E. Woolfenden.  1989.  Acorn harvesting by Florida scrub jays.  Ecology 70(2):348-356.

Fitzpatrick, J.W. and G.E. Woolfenden.  1988.  Components of lifetime reproductive success in the Florida scrub jay.  Pages 305-320 in:  Clutton-Brock, T.H. (ed.).  Reproductive success.  University of Chicago Press; Chicago , IL.

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

Fitzpatrick, J.W., B. Pranty, and B. Stith.  1994.  Florida scrub jay statewide map.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Report, Cooperative Agreement No. 14-16-0004-91-950.

Miller, J.B.  2003.  Email to Billy Brooks et al. dated May 13, 2003.  Documented continued presence of Florida scrub-jays in St. Johns County.

Mumme, R.L.  1992.  Do helpers increase reproductive success?  An experimental analysis in the Florida scrub jay.  Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 31:319-328.

Stith, B.M., J.W. Fitzpatrick, G.E. Woolfenden, and B. Pranty.  1996.  Classification and conservation of metapopulations: a case study of the Florida scrub jay.  Pages 187-215 in: McCullough, D.R. (ed.) Metapopulations and wildlife conservation.  Island Press; Washington, D.C.

Woolfenden, G.E. 1978. Growth and survival of young Florida scrub jays. Wilson Bull. 90:1-18.

Woolfenden, G.E., and Fitzpatrick, J.W.  1984.  The Florida scrub jay, demography of a cooperative-breeding bird. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ.

Woolfenden, G.E. and J.W. Fitzpatrick.  1990.  Florida scrub jays: a synopsis after 18 years of study.  Pages 240-266 in:  Cooperative breeding in birds; long-term studies of ecology and behavior (P.B. Stacey and W.D. Koenig. eds.).  Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K.

Woolfenden, G.E. and J.W. Fitzpatrick.  1996a.  Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens).  In:  The Birds of North America, No. 228 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.).  The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologist's Union, Washington, D.C.

For more information please contact:

Mike Jennings
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
7915 Baymeadows Way, Suite 200
Jacksonville, Florida 32256
904/731-3336
Click here to contact via email

Last Updated: 08/2009
Last Reviewed: 08/2005

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Last updated: September 12, 2014