scrub jay

WaterLine photo by Capt. Josh Olive

While there are lots of different bird species in Florida, none symbolizes our state’s history and challenges as well as the Florida scrub-jay.

Hey, I like ospreys. They’re extremely visible and highly photogenic. They are not at all shy about diving down to nab a fish when people are nearby, nor about eating it in a very visible location. They’re also pretty common — common enough that it’s a rare trip to the water when I don’t see a few.

But they are the wrong choice to replace the mockingbird as Florida’s state bird. Here’s a story from the News Service of Florida that popped into my email a few days ago:

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Add the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to the supporters of doing away with the mockingbird as the state bird during the 2022 legislative session. Commissioners agreed Thursday to offer the osprey as a potential replacement for the mockingbird — Florida’s avian symbol since 1927.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has filed a proposal (SCR 324) to rescind the designation of the mockingbird as the state bird. Meanwhile, Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, and Rep. Sam Killebrew, R-Winter Haven, have proposed legislation (SB 378 and HB 207) to designate the scrub jay as the state bird.

The FWC’s approval of a resolution Thursday revived a 2008 commission project tied to that year’s presidential election.

“It taught civics, taught birds and got a lot of young students, I think, from the fourth to seventh grade involved in voting,” said commission Assistant Executive Director Thomas Eason. “Over 77,000 students were involved in that and actually voted on a slate of birds. And the osprey was the winner.”

The commission unsuccessfully backed the change during the 2009 legislative session. Chairman Rodney Barreto said he’s been approached about the commission’s position on the bills and recommended “dusting” off the 2008 project.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the way it’s going to go, if you know the Legislature,” Barreto said. “But at least we can put a marker down.”

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Florida is a unique and special place, and as such we should be represented by unique and special symbols. Ospreys are great — but ospreys are everywhere. They’re found along tropical and temperate coastlines worldwide: Namibia, Saudi Arabia, India, Borneo, Japan, Australia, Alaska, Brazil, et cetera, et cetera. All the same species, all over the map.

Scrub-jays, by contrast, are found only in North America. Six species are found in the western part of the continent, ranging from British Columbia south to Mexico. But the only one in the eastern U.S. is the Florida scrub-jay, and it live only in peninsular Florida.

Animals found only in one area are called endemic. While Florida has been documented to have at least 196 species of birds breeding here and more than 500 have been recorded as at least occasional visitors, there’s only one bird that is endemic to Florida. That’s right — it’s the Florida scrub-jay.

In addition to having this particular distinction, scrub-jays are a part of the story of Florida as well. They require a very specific type of habitat, which is called scrub. Scrub is dry, flat, and features low-growing vegetation. That makes it ideal for land developers. For generations, we’ve been turning Florida’s scrub into orange groves, cattle ranches and housing developments.

Lots of animals utilize scrub habitat, but few are as dependent on it as the jays. Scrub-jays are so attached to the places they live that they will rarely cross other types of habitat to seek new homes.

As the remaining bits of scrub have been divided into smaller plots, separated by agricultural plots or homes, the jays have also been divided into smaller and smaller subpopulations. This has led to inbreeding problems, which wildlife biologists are now looking at solving by transporting birds between colonies. If that effort fails, our scrub-jays will likely go extinct.

It’s sad, but the scrub-jay’s fate is similar to the rest of wild Florida’s. We have rashly overbuilt this state and continue to do so at a breakneck pace. While regulators and developers often say they want to protect Florida’s natural heritage, their actions speak much more loudly as to their actual priorities. (It might be money, but what do I know?)

So what better symbol to represent Florida than a bird that exists only here, but that we have pushed to the very edge of survival? It’s very fitting. On the other hand, I can see why some people wouldn’t want to be reminded of that, so it’s no wonder they’re pushing a bird that deals better with the changes we have made.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

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