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Give me a jay

There's nothing wrong with mockingbirds, mind you, but the scrub jay should be the state bird. It's remarkable, and it's all ours.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 1999


ARCHBOLD -- The scrub jay lights on my palm and eats a peanut. The wonderful bird eyes me like a hawk, cocking its skull as if wondering when I'm going to come across with another morsel.

I lack another peanut, but the scrub jay refuses to give up. Taking wing, it roosts on my head, waiting patiently during the next few minutes while I question Glen E. Woolfenden.

Woolfenden is a University of South Florida professor who works at Archbold Biological Station, a non-profit natural science facility in rural Central Florida. Woolfenden, who has studied scrub jays for three decades, probably knows more about them than anyone.

The scrub jay, which looks like a blue jay without a crest, is in the news because environmentalists want the Legislature to declare the blue-gray species Florida's state bird, replacing the mockingbird.

Nothing wrong with mockingbirds. They're found in nearly every state and sing like angels. The scrub jay, in comparison, is our peninsula's sole indigenous bird, meaning it's found only here. (Spare me your mail, casual birdwatchers: There's a scrub jay relative in the far West, but it looks and behaves differently.)

In a perfect world, the scrub jay bill would pass easily -- it's a no brainer. Alas, we live in an imperfect world.

Some legislators might ask why fix what ain't broke? Who really cares, after all, whether the mockingbird or the scrub jay is the state's official birdie? It's an honorary title.

And why bother with something that seems trivial when there are more significant issues needing addressing?

If I were voting, I'd cast my vote for a new state bird.

Charming bird, prickly scientist

Woolfenden won't say he thinks the scrub jay should be Florida's state bird. "I won't give my opinion," he snaps. He's a scientist's scientist, one of those just-the-facts guys in his mid-60s.

In fact, when I show up at Archbold, after making an appointment, he seems loath to have a visitor.

"You don't know what busy is until you've got 60 scrub jay families to study," he fumes. He chews me out for being a journalist -- he thinks all journalists are sloppy with facts. If only they'd study ornithology literature, avoid human interest and stop wasting a scientist's valuable time.

"I've got 20 minutes, and then I go to lunch," he says. I've just driven 120 miles, but we jump into his truck and speed for the scrub.

"Peesh, peesh," Woolfenden calls after we stop among desert-looking vegetation. Hearing him beckon, a jay swoops from the underbrush and lands on his palm for a peanut. Woolfenden knows everything about this bird. It was born in 1985, and it's as tame as a pet store parakeet. Woolfenden may have gotten out of his bed's wrong side, but not the scrub jay. Preening on my head, it's charming.

"If you got questions, ask them," Woolfenden says. So I do -- not of the scrub jay, alas, but of him. Here's what I learn from our talk and from one of his thick reports:

A threatened species, the scrub jay is found in the very few locations in Florida that still have undisturbed scrub habitat. Scrub areas were Florida prehistoric beaches. Even a scrub 100 miles inland is characterized by thick, white sand. Plants that manage to survive in the hostile environment tend to be small and prickly and specialized.

The jay is found in a few scattered scrubs around the state, but the only stronghold is the Lake Wales Ridge, which stretches about 100 miles from Lake Placid north through Sebring to Lake Wales. The ridge, the spine of the peninsula, is about 10 miles wide and tops off at 100 feet or more above sea level.

About 90 percent of Florida's original scrub has been turned into golf courses, orange groves and development. Preventing wildfires in a scrub -- something most developers do -- dooms scrub jays. They build nests in vegetation close to the ground. If the brush grows too high, scrub jays stop reproducing.

Watching them for so many years, Woolfenden has learned volumes about their behavior.

They mate for life. Homebodies, they seldom stray within a few acres of their 25-acre range.

Because there's so little remaining scrub, young birds have to wait to have families. Last year's scrub jay crop, for example, will help their parents raise this year's brood. Only when a breeding bird dies does the next generation reproduce. "Cooperative breeding," as it's called, is unusual in the bird kingdom.

Scrub jays eat insects, but they're nuts about acorns. They'll eat them on the spot or hide them in the sand like a dog buries a bone. Months later, they'll uncover their treasure and have supper. Acorns they never find may sprout into new trees. Thus, they help maintain their own habitat.

Holding on, despite enemies

The scrub jay flies off my head and disappears into the thick brush. Woolfenden automatically looks up. "I thought I might have heard a hawk," he says.

When a scrub jay notices a hawk, it calls out a warning. Other scrub jays in the vicinity dive for cover deep within the brush and remain motionless. After a while, they'll creep out for a look. If the hawk, or the owl, is perched nearby, a group of scrub jays might dive-bomb it and drive it away.

If there's danger on the ground, say a snake or bobcat, scrub jays may screech bloody murder. Again, other scrub jays may come to the rescue, if only to berate the unsuccessful predator. Sometimes, as a snake slithers away, a scrub jay will swoop down and bite the tail.

Scrub jays have survived nature for thousands of years. But civilization has proved to be a more potent enemy.

Pinellas County once had enough scrub to sustain a scrub jay population, but then came development. There's been no breeding since the 1960s.

But they still hold on, at least in a few places, and that's a reason to celebrate. They're remarkable birds and they're completely ours. They deserve to be state bird.

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