TAMPA — No more than 9,500 scrub jays are believed to be flitting about Florida, the only place in the world where the blue and grayish-brown birds are found.
The loneliest population of all may be the four males living in Hillsborough County.
Scrub jays numbered as many as 45,600 in the late 1800s, but things have gone badly for them since. They don't migrate and they can't adapt to terrain other than sandy soil with sparse scrub and short trees — habitat that's disappearing because of developments both natural and man-made.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is partnering to rebuild the scrub jay population in Hillsborough and across Florida so the bird might someday be removed from the federal threatened species list. It's an effort that promises a broader payoff, too, said Todd Mecklenborg, lead biologist on the project with Fish and Wildlife.
"By protecting the scrub jay and the necessary quality of scrub it requires, it will also protect a lot of listed species and future listed species,'' Mecklenborg said. These include the gopher tortoise, scrub lizard, sand skink and a number of scrub plants.
Three of the Hillsborough County scrub jays live in the Golden Aster Nature Preserve near Gibsonton and are checked on regularly by conservationists with Hillsborough County. Only two were spotted during a Dec. 5 check, said Ken Bradshaw, field operations manager for the county's Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department. But the third bird was sighted during a check Wednesday. They are males, apparently.
"No one has heard a female, so that's what we all suspect, that there are three males together,'' said Marianne Korosy, Florida Audubon's director of bird conservation.
At Little Manatee River State Park near the south county line, a fourth scrub jay remains where a few years ago a family was living — a mating pair and helper. Park employee Cathy Hicks, who monitors the area for Audubon, said the single jay appears by its behavior to be a male. No one knows what happened to the female and helper.
Chances are the female died, because it wouldn't be like her to leave her partner. The pairs mate for life, and nest low to the ground. Their young stay around a few years to help raise new babies and protect the territory. As new pairs match up, they take over part of the territory. When the habitat is saturated, they look for new scrub nearby, said David Gordon, scrub jay expert with Quest Ecology in Wimauma.
The birds do best when there is contiguous scrubland that can support new populations. They need a clear view of danger from hawks above and snakes below.
While development has claimed a lot of habitat, so has nature. If scrub grows too dense, and trees too tall, the birds move on. Conservationists work to preserve and create habitat for the birds through controlled burning of undergrowth and removal of trees taller than 6 feet.
Bradshaw's Hillsborough County team is working to restore habitats throughout southern and central portions of the county, he said. So far, the scrub jays haven't come.
The birds have enough trouble when conditions are just right.
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A little more than a third of the babies don't make it through the first year, Mecklenborg said. Once a mating pair is established, however, the partners have an 80 percent chance of living another year.
They have a security system with the selection of a designated sentinel jay that stands watch for hawks while the others forage for insects and acorns. They bury the acorns in the sand for winter.
As a threatened species, scrub jays fall under the less restrictive of two protection classifications established in the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. Threatened species are deemed likely to be at the brink of extinction in the near future. Endangered species are at the brink now.
Estimates of the scrub jay population are derived largely from surveys on public lands, Mecklenborg said. Private landowners generally don't allow researchers in for fear they might actually find the birds, which could restrict the use of the land.
Contact Philip Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.