It was inevitable. When the “For Sale” sign popped up like a mushroom overnight, my heart skipped a beat. The last scrub land lot that was home to our neighborhood Florida Scrub Jays was on the market. I sent emails to the Audubon Society and our County Commissioner, wondering if there were funds to purchase the property, but I received no response. Every time I passed the lot I said a silent prayer that it would not sell. It had been up for sale before, but nothing had happened then. A slow economy may be bad for humans, but it can be wonderful for the critters. But recently some other properties were sold and cleared for construction. That was a bad sign for this woodland.
Florida Scrub Jays are notoriously fickle when choosing their homes. They are the Goldilocks of our feathered friends—it has to be “just right.” They dwell on Florida’s dwindling sandy scrub oak and flat woods. The oaks can’t be too tall or too short, and they like patches of open sand where they can bury their cache of acorns for later meals. Each family unit has its own territory, and if there is not enough space they will not breed. The family will stay together, and the older siblings will help raise the younger ones. The birds take turns watching for dangers like hawks, cats, and snakes while the others hunt for food. If a threat is detected they will screech an alarm, and the group will launch an offensive against the intruder.
Scrub Jays’ gregarious personalities make them comfortable around people. If enticed by a raw peanut in a shell, they might fly to a human hand and retrieve the treat. Growing up in Stuart, Florida, I had a family of jays living by our house. They would descend in our backyard, their raucous voices announcing their arrival. That would be my cue to grab the bucket of peanuts and sunflower seeds and go outside. If I didn’t respond quickly enough, I would hear a rapping on the window. They would peer in and tap their beaks on the glass to get my attention. Thus summoned I would go out, palms up and filled with treats. There were times when I would have one bird on my head, one on each shoulder, and one feeding out of each hand at the same time! It was wonderful. But that didn’t last. The county built a major roadway around the little airport’s property next to our house. The scrub oak was destroyed, and the birds left the area.
So when I moved into our current neighborhood sixteen years ago, I was delighted to find a group of Scrub Jays hanging on in the remaining scrub areas of Rocky Point. But development continued to chip away at the remnants of the sandy patches the jays desire. At one point they took up residence in a large bougainvillea, but a new homeowner cut it down. I was walking by at the time, and the poor birds were on the telephone wire, screeching as their home was torn away. It was pathetic and heart wrenching—I actually cried. But they rallied and began living on the last sandy scrub lot. I keep peanuts in my car, and if I see them as I pass, I’ll stop and visit with them. They fly to my head, claws digging in my scalp. Once they feel safe they will flit to my hand, grab the nut, fly off, and quickly bury their prize in the sand for future use.
But now that pristine lot is gone. Yesterday my fears were realized. In the span of mere hours the entire lot was bulldozed—not one oak was spared. The jays’ last piece of natural scrub is gone, and I wonder if I will ever see them again.
I hope they will adapt. If they lived in the bougainvillea, they might find another suitable tree for nesting. But my heart is heavy. The species is struggling for survival, so every loss of habitat threatens their very existence. Additionally, they live in the same ecosystem as the threatened gopher tortoise, a keystone species whose burrows affect many other creatures. I’m concerned they were all impacted by the lot’s clearing.
I’ll look for the jays as I drive by the site. Their familiar flash of bright blue feathers darting up and down from the ground to the overhead wires still thrills me. But I worry that this may be the final blow to our neighborhood Scrub Jay family. I’m not sure how much longer they can survive here. But as long as there is hope, I’ll keep the peanuts handy.