I’m in Florida this week for vacation, so this post will be a bit shorter. But I wanted to take the time to introduce you all to the Florida scrub-jay!
I’m very excited about this bird. Why, you might ask? Well, the Florida scrub-jay is one of only 15 bird species endemic to the United States and the only bird native to Florida. You can only see these birds in Florida, and unfortunately I won’t get to see one on this trip 🙁
So I will instead settle for just telling you about Florida scrub-jays. These birds have been in Florida for a while: one study puts them as a distinct species in the area for the past 2 million years. They have evolved to live in the Florida oak scrub habitat. This scrub habitat only exists in central Florida and in some limited spots on the Atlantic coast. It’s sandy, somewhat prone to droughts, and historically had frequent wildfires (humans have been keeping the number of fires in check). So all in all, not the nicest place to live, but it’s the only place Florida scrub-jays call home.
Florida scrub-jays are particularly cool because they are one of the only cooperative breeding birds in North America. This means that the chicks are taken care of by their parents and by other individuals (also called “alloparents”). In the case of the Florida scrub-jays, these other individuals are typically older siblings. Fledgling scrub-jays will stay at the nest and help rear their younger siblings – feeding them and protecting the nest from predators. This alloparental care by the older siblings is also super important: the chicks are more likely to survive to adulthood if alloparents are around to help out.
Florida scrub-jays are a classic example of alloparental care, but why do they do it? Wouldn’t it be better for them to leave the nest and have their own chicks? You would be right…if there was space for the fledglings to have their own nest. There’s only so much Florida scrub habitat to go around, and fledglings often cannot find space to make their own nest. By staying at their parents’ nest, they can 1) gain some reproductive fitness by raising their siblings and 2) be ready to snag their parents’ nest when they die. It ends up being a win-win: the parents get help with the young siblings and the older siblings may one day get a nest of their own.
Unfortunately, Florida scrub-jays are endangered, in part because of this dependence on the scrub habitat. These birds aren’t adapted to live in other trees and other environments; as the scrub habitat gets hurt by human encroachment, there are simply fewer places for Florida scrub-jays to live. But there is hope: people have been focused on protecting the scrub habitat for a while now. Hopefully we can do enough to protect this habitat and the Florida scrub-jay so that I can see one on my next trip.