One Jay at a Time

Meticulous conservation efforts are paying off: the Florida scrub jay population of Indian River County is on the rise

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Scrub jay. Photo by Steven Martine
Scrub jay. Photo by Steven Martine

It is a threatened species found only in Florida. It is known for its intelligence and beauty. It is the Florida scrub jay, and thanks to conservation efforts, it is thriving in Indian River County.

Monica Folk heads the scrub jay population study in Indian River County. Photo by Steven Martine
Monica Folk heads the scrub jay population study in Indian River County. Photo by Steven Martine

“It’s a success story, for sure,” says Wendy Swindell, the county’s conservation lands manager. To what extent? The scrub jay population of the North Sebastian Conservation Area over the years tells the story. In 1999, there were only seven Florida scrub jays counted in the 422-acre property; by 2021, the number was up more than tenfold, to 71! This statistic is corroborated by the trajectory of other locations in the county, where rising populations of the species have been reported.

Key players in the county’s conservation program have been Parks and Recreation director Beth Powell, who has worked tirelessly to promote scrubland habitat, at times serving as a “one-person conservation crew,” as Swindell puts it; Monica Folk, a scrub jay expert who oversees the population studies; and Roland M. DeBlois, retired chief of the Environmental Planning Code Enforcement Section, who, Swindell notes, had the foresight to promote scrub jay conservation beginning in the 1990s. “Without their diligent work, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” she says.

Scrub jays. Photo by Steven Martine
Scrub jays. Photo by Steven Martine

Essential to the progress has been habitat management. “We try to eke out every square inch of habitat for the jays,” Swindell says. The Florida scrub jay has a distinctive niche in the ecosystem, and it requires a very specialized habitat. As its name implies, that habitat is scrub—specifically, sand pine and xeric oak scrub and scrub flatlands.  

Samantha “Sammy” McGee is an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection who monitors the scrub jay population at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park. She explains that maintaining the right habitat for the species “is always a juggling act.” They need the oak trees to be mature enough to produce acorns, a favorite food. They also need vegetation that is large enough to provide hiding places. However, they are not forest birds and will not thrive if the scrub gets overgrown. They require a happy medium between barren sands and lush forest.  

Humane traps allow for banding and monitoring of the scrub jays. Photo by Steven Martine
Humane traps allow for banding and monitoring of the scrub jays. Photo by Steven Martine

Depending on the area, conservation experts maintain that balance through controlled burns or the use of machinery to clear out vegetation that is becoming overly dense. “We don’t clear-cut by any means, but we use what’s called ‘sloppy chopping,’” Swindell emphasizes. Think of it as a way of pruning a habitat so as to preserve the distinctive scrub conditions.

Population study is also essential to scrub jay conservation; it is the increasing numbers in Indian River County that are the benchmark for success. And these numbers are determined through the work of dedicated volunteers who participate in scrub jay banding. Among these volunteers are Bob and Rebecca Howland. “The Howlands have just been amazing,” Swindell says. “They’re really dedicated, and I think they know every bird.”

Up-to-date maps and charts show areas of populations and numbers of scrub jays found over the years in Indian River County. Photo by Steven Martine
Up-to-date maps and charts show areas of populations and numbers of scrub jays found over the years in Indian River County. Photo by Steven Martine

“I’m a born Floridian, but where I lived before there were no scrub jays,” relates Bob Howland. After he and his wife retired to Sebastian in 2018, he had his first contact with the birds. “One day I was biking in the Wabasso area, and all of a sudden these blue birds were flying around me.” Looking closely, he noticed that they were banded. “I realized, ‘These are scrub jays!’” It was an unforgettable moment, and it sparked his curiosity. Soon, the Howlands were part of the volunteer program, being trained to band the jays themselves.  

A fascinating aspect of the work has been the opportunity to see the individual characteristics of the birds. “They each have their own personalities,” Bob says. “Often, individuals have predictable behavior, because they have habits just like humans do.”

Indian River County land conservation coordinator Ashley Lingwood and volunteer Bob Howland evaluate a scrub jay after trapping. Photo by Steven Martine
Indian River County land conservation coordinator Ashley Lingwood and volunteer Bob Howland evaluate a scrub jay after trapping. Photo by Steven Martine

Rebecca agrees: “You say, ‘There’s so and so,’ and you know what he’s going to do.”

One memorable experience has been watching a female scrub jay recover and adapt after a serious injury. She lost a foot, perhaps due to an encounter with a predator, and “she’s been jumping around on a bone stump,” Bob says. At first, she was not doing well, but now she has greatly improved and adjusted to her condition. “She kind of peg-legs around pretty good,” Bob explains, making the jay sound quite piratical, “and she looks fluffy and healthy again.”   

Scrub jays undergo a brief health check before being banded. Photo by Steven Martine
Scrub jays undergo a brief health check before being banded. Photo by Steven Martine

So how do volunteers actually go about putting a band on a scrub jay? It begins with a humane trap that is baited with peanuts. David and Dee Simpson, Fellsmere birdwatching guides who participate in banding at St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park, have extensive experience with the process. David wryly describes the design as “your basic Bugs Bunny trap”—a wire cage with a door propped up by a piece of wood tied to a string. 

A volunteer watches for the jays to enter and then pulls the string to bring down the door. The bird is then placed carefully into a small bag, and the trap is reset. The bag has to be knotted at the top, otherwise the clever little bird can work its way out. 

Each scrub jay is affixed with a colored leg band that identifies the bird as well as the number of years it’s been tracked. Photo by Steven Martine
Each scrub jay is affixed with a colored leg band that identifies the bird as well as the number of years it’s been tracked. Photo by Steven Martine

To minimize their time in the bags, the jays are banded in the order in which they are trapped. Each bird is removed from the bag and held gently but firmly. The feathers are very soft to the touch. During the banding process, it is given a stick to cling to; scrub jays are perching birds, and they feel more comfortable with something to perch on. In fact, different sizes of sticks are at the ready, so that each jay can have a choice. 

The bands affixed are in a color code that allows for recognition based on specific sites and based on generation. A trained volunteer can instantly look at a combination such as “green, silver” and gain insight into the territory and life history of the individual jay. Finally, the jay is released and, with a flutter of its wings, flies off into the scrub land.  

Sticks, and sometimes pencils, are used to help the bird feel more comfortable during the process. Photo by Steven Martine
Sticks, and sometimes pencils, are used to help the bird feel more comfortable during the process. Photo by Steven Martine

Being near these birds is rewarding for volunteers. The plumage of the Florida scrub jay has a beautiful range of blues, from powdery soft to brilliantly azure, complemented by a delicate misty gray. “Is there anything better than being outside at dawn?” asks volunteer Judy Elseroad. “Only being outside at dawn with a scrub jay in your hand.”

This close interaction also provides insight into the intelligence of the birds. Jays are corvids, being in the same family as crows and ravens, and are therefore intelligent birds. McGee elaborates: “Like any corvid, they are said to have the intelligence equivalent of a 7-to-8-year-old human. And they each have an individual personality. Some are more daring and risk-taking; some are more cautious.” 

Juvenile scrub jays are referred to as “brownheads. Photo by Steven Martine
Juvenile scrub jays are referred to as “brownheads. Photo by Steven Martine

With regard to the trap, McGee says, “they probably all discern that it is a trap; some decide it’s worth it for the food because they know they will be released.” Furthermore, the scrub jays are initially trapped as juveniles in May and June, “before they get too much of a skill set to be trapped.” Thus, by the time they are fully able to outwit the trap, they are aware that they don’t really have to, because it will not harm them—and it will reward them with food.

Rebecca Howland observes that the juveniles—called “brownheads” because they have not yet attained their colorful adult plumage—are often very noisy, “and for the first couple of days of trap training they may or may not go into the trap.” However, as they get acclimated to the process, “they’re waiting at the entrance, like, ‘Bring us the nuts!’”

Volunteer Bob Howland releases a jay after banding. Photo by Steven Martine
Volunteer Bob Howland releases a jay after banding. Photo by Steven Martine

Further evidence of scrub jay intelligence is their habit of “caching”—storing food supplies to return to later. Swindell illustrates the significance of this behavior: “With the children’s programs, we play a game where we ask kids to take a leaf and put it somewhere; then they move around a little, and we ask them to find the leaf.” Often, they are not able to find it again. Yet “jays are able to remember and find caches of food.”

The family structure of the Florida scrub jay is unusual; they live in groups that, along with the breeding pair, include young “helpers.” Usually these helpers are previous offspring of the breeding pair—young adults that are not yet breeding themselves and that are essentially helping out their parents and younger siblings. It is a cooperative breeding strategy—and a multigenerational family system—that is a fascinating aspect of scrub jay life.

Volunteer Bob Howland, Monica Folk, and volunteer Rebecca Howland work out of the back of a car in the North Sebastian Conservation Area banding birds. Photo by Steven Martine
Volunteer Bob Howland, Monica Folk, and volunteer Rebecca Howland work out of the back of a car in the North Sebastian Conservation Area banding birds. Photo by Steven Martine

How can readers help the Florida scrub jay? Remember that as Bob Howland puts it, “they’re wild birds, not domestic birds.” Junk food or even just excess food can throw off their life cycle by causing them to nest early, at a time when there will not be enough food available for nestlings; so avoid tossing food to them. Also, volunteers for the banding and population studies are always in demand. 

The steady increase in the scrub jay population in Indian River County is thanks to careful habitat management and the hard work of enthusiastic people. And the outcome so far has exceeded expectations. “It’s been a happy surprise,” as Swindell puts it. May the happy surprises continue for these beautiful and unique birds! 

Join Team Scrub Jay

To help out at county sites, contact Wendy Swindell at 772-226-1781 or conservation@indianriver.gov. 

To assist at the St. Sebastian River State Park, contact Sammy McGee at 321-953-5005 or samantha.mcgee@floridadep.gov.

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