Scrubbing for Wildlife

Mickey Blanchett studies the Florida scrub-jay.
Photo by Patti M. Walsh

Mickey Blanchett takes after housemate Rick when it comes to observing birds.

On a recent bus trip organized by the Calusa Nature Center to the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida, Rick spotted horned owls, swallow-tailed kites, and caracara when everyone else saw cows. His wife, Nancy, is accustomed to people gathering around Rick when he has his finger pointed in the air.

“What are we looking at?” Someone will say as a small crowd gathers to follow his gaze. “Chimney swift,” he might say. Or grasshopper sparrow. Or black skimmer. It doesn’t matter. It’s usually something most people have never heard of. And may not even see.

Closer to home, Mickey enjoys the crows, jays, and wrens—even a family of bald eagles—in the nature preserve behind his home. He’d love one day to see a Florida scrub-jay, he thought as he studied a brochure that Nancy brought home. But he’d have to travel about two hours north, and, well, he yawned, that’s not going to happen.

See, the Florida scrub-jay is found nowhere else in the world.

Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens)
Courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

I joined Rick and Nancy at Archbold to learn more about the threatened bird and the station that studies it. Once endangered, the jay’s population has doubled since the 1990s, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

A member of the crow family, the scrub-jay’s name says it all. It lives in the short scrub oaks found in central Florida along the Lake Wales Ridge.  

Sometimes referred to as the Mid-Florida Ridge and visible by satellite, the 100-mile spiny landmass is a relic beach dune, though it’s about 75 miles from the nearest shore. At 312 feet above sea level, the nearby Sugarloaf “Mountain” is the tallest formation in the area and one of the tallest hills in Florida.

Satellite image of the Florida peninsula with yellow arrows indicating the position of the Lake Wales Ridge.
Courtesy of U.S. States Geological Survey

Improbable as it seems, the white sands of central Florida are an extension of the Appalachians. Twenty million years ago (give or take a millennium or two), when tectonic activity lifted the mountains into existence, the same cataclysm heaved fine-grained sediments from the depths of the ocean to the top of the limestone that created the ridge that’s now home to the unique bird.

Beach sand, 75 miles from the nearest shoreline.
Time slips by, like 20-million-year-old sand.
Photos by Patti M. Walsh

A Florida native, Rick likes that about the scrub-jay. Averaging about 10 inches in length and weighing about 3 ounces, it’s an umbrella species. That means conservation efforts to protect it extend to other species that live among the short, scrubby oaks that grow in the sandy soil of the Lake Wales Ridge.

Our tour of the Archbold Biological Station was led by environmental education leader Dustin Angell. We learned that what looks like bare, sandy patches punctuated with scrub oaks, blueberries, and palmettos is really a very healthy habitat for these birds—and the things they eat.

Nancy, Patti, and Rick at Archbold Biological Station
Photo by Rick Blanchett

Their diet consists of caterpillars, insects, small lizards, and rodents. But the staple is scrub-oak acorns. A single scrub-jay can harvest and hide as many as 8,000 acorns a year. Remarkably, each jay remembers where it buried each corn. As an added benefit, acorns that are cached but not eaten become new oaks.

Four species of oak live here—sand live oak, scrub oak, myrtle oak, and Chapman’s oak. Related to mighty oaks that thrive in richer soil elsewhere, they reproduce by acorns as well as by clonal root systems. This backup system facilitates re-emergence after a fire. Controlled burns prevent the proliferation of pine trees that would otherwise turn a scrub habitat into a forest, as well as grasses that would cover the bare sand patches the jays need to hide their acorns.

Saw and scrub palmettos also benefit the jays. They use the scrub palmetto’s fibers to line their nests. Recently completed studies date the saw palmettos to be between 5,000 and 8,000 years old.

Scrub-jays are cooperative breeders. Each nesting territory is occupied by an adult pair and the pair’s offspring from previous years. Not only do the offspring babysit and help feed the nestlings, but they also watch for predators. If necessary, the family forms a mob—attacking the predator until it leaves. Rarely do scrub-jays travel more than two miles from where they hatched.

Environmental education leader Dustin Angell explains the importance of the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Photo by Patti M. Walsh

Archbold Biological Station is a field station and natural laboratory for visiting biologists and students studying the region’s rare plants and animals. As such, it has played a crucial role in the campaign to conserve the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

Established in 2021 by unanimous, bipartisan support, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act established a statewide network of nearly 18 million acres of contiguous land crucial to the survival of many of Florida’s 131 imperiled animals. It secures access to habitats for wide-ranging wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther, each of which needs 200 square miles. The black bear, incidentally, needs 60. Roads and other developments restrict the movement of these animals.

Mickey knows that when panthers, bears, and other animals have no access to natural prey, they turn to domesticated herds and human food. He also knows that feral and wild cats are a major threat to scrub-jays.

But he isn’t likely to pounce. He’s a fat cat, an armchair birder, who leaves the hard work to his housemates, Rick and Nancy.

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3 thoughts on “Scrubbing for Wildlife

  1. I have read this article three times so far. The rich detail and surprising natural history are amazing. I cannot wrap my head around the idea of 20 million years, or learning that the Lake Wales Ridge is an extension of the Appalachian range, or that bipartisan cooperation exists to create legislation benefiting the community. You have really cool friends. Now I’m going to go back and read more about the details of the life of the scrub jay.


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