We must save our Scrub-Jays from extinction!

The President’s Hoot
by Richard H. Baker, Ph.D.
November 2006

Florida scrub-jays, the only bird species unique to Florida and keystone species of fire-dependent xeric oak scrub, have been in a steady decline; 90% of the original populations are gone due to the loss of habitat for agriculture and urban development and also due to degrading of habitat from the suppression of natural fires. Like our bald eagle, scrub-jays are listed as a threatened species by both federal and state agencies. To rectify this decline, some scrub habitats have been preserved and managed (although not enough) to protect this species and the other species found only in scrub. Large areas are needed as each scrub-jay family group, two breeders and up to six helpers, defends approximately 13-25 acres of land.

On November 20th, Ernest M. Cowan, will be speaking about the plight of the scrub jay populations at the Savannas Preserve State Park in St. Lucie County, where their numbers remained stable from 1996-1999, but have been steadily declining since then from 41 individuals to 28 individuals in 2003, a 33% decline over the 8-year period. He finds predation by natural and urban related animals are part of the problem. His study revealed that scrub jays are occupying territories that are much smaller than the normal optimal size and are having minimal reproductive success. In addition, the birds are subjected to predation pressures from natural predators present at higher than normal densities and by other predators, such as feral cats and dogs, brought into their habitat by encroaching urban development.

Florida Scrub-Jay by Bob Montanaro.

The largest scrub habitat in Indian River County is the St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park with 21,748.42 acres (33 square miles), which is shared with Brevard County. This park is home to the fourth largest scrub-jay metapopulation in Florida. Although now, according to Judy Elseroad, scrub-jay populations drastically decreased by 52 to 63 % in the last two years due to “catch-up” restoration fires, the Preserve is now at a point where future proscribed fires where no single territory will be completely burned at one time, leaving the majority of the area in optimum condition. Hopefully, the population will now rebound. Judy will also be leading our Dec 2nd field trip to the preserve (See page ) to see the jays and the efforts being made there to protect the remaining population, including further habitat restoration.

Indian River County has purchased other areas to preserve and protect scrub-jays. As a result of studies from 1991 through 1998 of banded scrub-jays within the Sebastian Highlands that showed 54%decline from 35 breeding pairs to 16 breeding pairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) stopped all development in the Highlands until Indian River County and the City of Sebastian requested a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and received an Incidental Take Permit for the purpose of maintaining 13 to 14 scrub-jay families in the Sebastian area. Beth Powell, County Environmental Lands Manager, has had many of these individuals in the Highlands banded and indicated that some of these families are producing young. Nevertheless, Sebastian still needs to stop allowing land clearing during the nesting season in areas where we know there are jays. In addition the City should install traffic calming devices near the Pelican Island Elementary School preserve, ENFORCE the leash law, and change the landscaping ordinance so that perch trees won’t be planted next to jay preserves.

The good news is that there are other scrub-jay populations in our county (i.e. the winter beach site on Old Dixie and 65th St., Sebastian Preserve near Engler and Easy Streets, and other sites in mid, southern and western county). However, little attention is given to these areas, which are at the greatest risk and may be very critical to the continuation of the scrub-jay populations in Indian River County. The county, however, can think comprehensively about its endangered species protection and develop its own comprehensive Habitat Conservation Plan. This would require the county to identify areas with listed species and areas to conserve. If done correctly, it can be a major win-win:
1. The mitigation cost can be spread out or shared by everyone (reduced mitigation cost)
2. Once the incidental take permit is issued, the process is expedited for the homeowner and the developer because the USFWS is out of the loop (provided that the development is consistent with the plan)
3. The mitigation stays in the county instead of going to Brevard County
4. It gives the county more control (provided they issue permits consistent with the agreements in the HCP- then they don’t need to consult with the USFWS).

So there is hope for our scrub-jays – What needs to be done?

What our county can do.

  1. Conduct a countywide survey of all scrub jay habitats to determine the presence of scrub-jay families and monitor them every five years.
  2. Band all family members to determine population levels over time.
  3. Enforce the leash law for all cats. All feral and domestic cats found outside without a leash should be taken to the Humane Society.
  4. Provide a county-wide HCP to protect our remaining scrub-jays.\
  5. Give micro incentives such as tax reductions to private land owners who manage their lands for the benefit of scrub-jays in their area. Reduce your property tax if you have scrub-jay families on your land or lots.
  6. Purchase additional scrub-jay habitat, fee simple or conservation easements, with county environmental land bond funds.

What You can do. You can help!

  1. The Nature Conservancy has created the Jay Watch program using volunteers to count scrub-jays on conservation sites. Volunteers attend training sessions where they learn about jays, their habitat, and how to observe and track them. Beth Powell is interested in organizing Jay Watch in our county. If you are interested, please call 567-3520 or email PIAudubon@yahoo.com our office or Beth Powell directly at 589-9223 or bpowell@ircgov.com.\
  2. Email your County Commissioners:
    Sandra Bowden sbowden@ircgov.com
    Gary Wheeler gwheeler@ircgov.com
    Wesley Davis wdavis@ircgov.com
    Peter O’Bryan pobryan@ircgov.com
    Joe Flescher jflescher@ircgov.com or call them at 567-8000 ext 1490 and tell them you want the county to protect our scrub-jays (see above).
  3. Encourage legislators to change the designation of scrub jays from “threatened” to “endangered”\
  4. Talk to your neighbors and friends to support proscribed fires, as the inconvenience of smoke and fire is minor compared to the drop in all animal & bird populations in overgrown areas. It may also help preserve your home.

Come Monday Nov 20th evening to learn from the expert what else we can do about other things that might be causing the population to drastically disappear as they are!

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