Bird Watching

If you wanna call yourself a real Floridian, you gotta see the Scrub Jay

While I like to brag about being a Florida born and raised boy, I must confess that I have never seen the state’s only endemic bird species, the scrub jay.

It was easy to see scrub jays. They have been found throughout central Florida. But people’s insatiable need to develop every corner of the state has pushed the bird to the edges. We have lost over 90% of our native population of scrub jays to habitat destruction.

However, pockets of old Florida still exist, and that’s where you’ll find this endangered species. One of the most likely places to encounter a face-to-face scrub jay is Oscar Scherer Park. And an even more likely way to see them is to join one of Jon Thaxton’s morning tours.

I drove to Nokomis and met Thaxton when the park gates opened at 8am earlier this spring. East Thaxton Vice President for Community Leadership at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. He is also a self-taught scrub jay expert. For more than 40 years, he studied jays at Oscar Scherer and elsewhere in Florida, and he and a handful of other conservation-minded Floridians helped save the park nearly 40 years ago.

“They wanted to make it another golf course and an underdevelopment,” Thaxton said as he slowly guided me through the 1,400-acre park en route to see the scrub jays. “But we stopped them.”

Oscar Scherer is what Southwest Florida is supposed to be like: open sandy areas, treeless but for a few slash pines, flat expanses filled with impenetrable palms, three species of oaks that burn before they reach more than 10 feet.

The fine, white sand on the trails is the same fine, white sand that makes up all of Siesta Key’s famous beaches. Quartz sand was deposited here millions of years ago after eons of tectonic grinding of the Appalachian Mountains. The meanders of the landscape brought us every grain of sand. The result is a one-of-a-kind habitat where the scrub jay can live.

Thaxton is a man from Florida. He grew up not far from the park, playing on the train tracks that now make up Legacy Trail. As I followed him, he told facts about the bird.

“It takes them five to 10 days to build a nest,” he said. “They use only dead twigs of living trees and line the nest with palm fibers. A breeding pair lives their entire lives on a 25-acre lot. These scrub jay territories have been passed down from breeding pairs to their eldest sons for hundreds and hundreds of years. Many of these territories may have been in place before the Europeans set foot in Florida.

The only things that interrupted Thaxton’s lecture were his own sudden calls to the bird: “SHHHHP! SHHHHP! SHHHHP!” Then he tossed a peanut in the air before reciting more facts.

The Florida scrub jay caches around 4,000 acorns a year and remembers where each one is buried. “I can’t remember where I put my car keys yesterday,” Thaxton joked. “Scrub jays are also one of the few animals that can recognize themselves.” Alzheimer’s researchers are studying the bird’s memory, hoping their brains are a portal to cognitive understanding.

Thaxton frequently takes people to Oscar Scherer to draw attention to the plight of the scrub jay and their shrinking habitat. He gives visits to school groups, friends, strangers and even the occasional politician.

In fact, he convinced state Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, to join him last spring to see why the scrub jay should be named Florida’s official state bird. A bill, HB 207, had been dropped to recognize the scrub jay, the third time activists have attempted to have the bird honored, and Thaxton and others hoped it would pass. Thaxton played on Buchanan’s Family Values ​​platform. “I told him they were completely monogamous,” Thaxton said. “Truly the ambassador par excellence of Judeo-Christian values.”

But the bill died in subcommittee, and the northern thrasher remains our state bird — the same state bird as Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

Why has it been so impossible to cherish Florida’s only endemic bird?

“Some are concerned that his designation will create a regulatory burden,” Thaxton said. “It is a baseless argument. For the past 70 years, the mockingbird has been the state bird. Has the presence of a mockingbird ever stopped development? Of course not.”

And now, said Thaxton, time is running out. Unlike the bald eagle, whose population has rebounded dramatically thanks in large part to conservation efforts and its predilection for cleaning county landfills, Thaxton says the scrub jay’s ability to adapt to changed environments by man is “nil to nil”.

“Most of the world’s threatened and endangered species are disappearing,” Thaxton explained. “This concept that we can come in and make these wholesale changes and the bird is going to adapt is just bullshit – one way we feel good.”

He added that some people cite recently developed areas in southern Venice that still retain scrub jays as proof that they will adapt to us. “That’s just not true,” he said. “We can’t just go out there and wipe out the land and believe they’ll get away with hibiscus and manicured lawns. They will all die.

Then I saw him. Perched in the dense shrubbery of a Chapman oak, the bird was watching us before we could see it. My first scrub jay – metallic blue with long, pencil-thin legs.

“I don’t know if it will take the food,” Thaxton told our group. “It’s not a trained zoo animal.”

The bird jumped onto the path in front of us and bounced around, seemingly equally at home on the ground as it was in the air. He looked fearless and indifferent. Then a commotion started. He jumped onto a young live oak tree and was joined by three other scrub jays. They were looking somewhere in the brush and making a racket.

“They spotted a snake,” Thaxton said. “They warn each other and everything else in the park.”

After the birds watched the intruder enough, they became interested in us again. Thaxton juggled a peanut several times with a jay that had perched on the wire fence near the trail. Then he held out his hand. Jay jumped off the fence and took a sounding ride through Thaxton’s outstretched Peanut. A moment later, he flew to her hand and ate the treat directly from her palm.

It was special to be in the presence of this bird. Experiencing something so special in a world that is homogenizing is rare. It used to be that you had to travel halfway around the world to see a giant boa constrictor in the wild. Now we can’t keep them out of our gardens.

The world comes to Florida and pushes other things out. The scrub jay is just one more endangered species feeling the pressure. Will we be the last generation to see what Florida was meant to be? The scrub jay has lived in our garden for over 2 million years. I’m hoping for another million more.