This starts with a pre-history lesson. The Florida we know today is not anything like it once was. Climate change (which is very real, and has been happening literally everywhere for the entirety of our planet’s existence) has made this a humid and rainy place, at least for part of the year. But it was not always so.
During the last glacial maximum, which we commonly call an ice age, Florida was much larger — and much drier. Tens of thousands of years prior, almost all of the state was under the sea. Having been through perhaps hundreds of these cycles — underwater when the planet warmed, high and dry when the glaciers ruled — pretty much every acre of Florida was (briefly) beachfront property on multiple occasions. Thus, sandy soils dominate.
What grows in sand when rainfall is rare? To find out, look west. North America still has plenty of places that meet this description well. We call them deserts. They’re not like the Sahara or the Gobi. American deserts are full of life, both plant and animal. When Florida’s climate was desert, life was abundant here as well.
This arid land stretched across most of the southern U.S., and many of the species we associate with deserts were found in this habitat. As the climate became wetter, these plants and animals died out in most parts of the continent. There were no places dry enough for them.
But Florida, with its fast-draining sandy soil, offered a sort of reverse oasis. Here there were areas that held little water in the upper parts of the soil, and that’s where the desert refugees flourished. Today, we call this type of habitat scrub — a rather demeaning name for something that is both rare and unique.
In these areas and various other xeric (that’s a fancy word for “dry”) microclimates, which are usually called scrubby something-or-other, we still find a host of both plants and animals that are adapted to live here. Some, such as prickly pears and gopher tortoises, are able to live in wetter (but still sandy) areas. Others, such as Florida rosemary and the scrub-jay, are specialists and have no other options.
Now for some more modern history: In the early 1900s, large-scale agriculture began to claim acreage in Florida. Citrus groves boomed in the southern half of the state, and growers particularly sought out areas where sand pine — a plant typical of scrub — grew. The soil in such places was ideal for their trees, which disliked wet feet.
The grovemen liked ridges for their higher elevation, since on cold nights the chilliest air would sink into lower areas, leaving the citrus just a tad warmer. They didn’t know back then that these ridges had once been islands when the rest of Florida was underwater, and that the natural communities found there exist nowhere else. Even if they had, progress can’t be stopped, can it?
And soon progress brought hordes of people, drawn by the climate and huge amounts of natural resources for the taking. Everybody who came needed a place to live. The best places to build homes were on higher elevation to avoid flooding and had sparse trees that were easy to clear. Once again, the scrub took a hit.
And here we are today, in an age of environmental enlightenment. We look around us at what our parents and their parents and their parents did and wonder how they could have been so short-sighted and … no, wait. That age of enlightenment is still a generation or two away. It has to be, because we’re still actively destroying Florida’s natural treasures. Even when we try to preserve them, we often do so in ways that are laughably ineffective.
All of which has led us to what I believe to be a foregone conclusion: The Florida scrub-jay — a small and friendly bird that no one could dislike if they’d seen one in person — is going to vanish from the wild within the next 25 to 50 years.
How can this be, when local, state and federal agencies have created a mountain of rules and regulations to prevent that exact thing? Well, it doesn’t matter how hard you try to do something if your techniques are ineffective. Choose the wrong treatment and the patient dies. If you’re bleeding to death, it doesn’t matter how long I do CPR, you’re still toast.
To save the jays, the government listed them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1987. What does that mean? Well, aside from the obvious things like you can’t shoot one for dinner or catch them for pets, the ESA calls for “critical habitat” to be set aside. In the case of the scrub-jays, critical habitat isn’t so hard to identify. In case you weren’t paying attention, it’s scrub.
But there was a teensy-tiny problem. By the 1980s, scrub-jay habitat was already seriously fragmented. It’s not just habitat loss that proves so devastating to animals — habitat fragmentation is often the real killer.
To understand the problem, imagine yourself on a small desert island (kind of like the ones from the old Far Side cartoons, but let’s make it about 10 acres). On your island, you have food, water, shelter and a suitable companion of the opposite sex (for this exercise, let’s assume you’re 21 years old). You’ve got everything you need for a long and happy life.
About 500 yards away, there’s another island a lot like yours. There’s a happy couple there as well. In fact, there are lots of these islands scattered all over. If you climb the coconut tree (of course there’s a coconut tree), you can see dozens and dozens.
But in the water between, you can see sharp coral and enormous sharks. There’s no way to get from one island to the next — no material for a raft, no hope of swimming. Even if you could build a boat, the huge waves between the islands would smash you against the reefs. You’re stuck where you are, forever.
Let’s fast forward 20 years. There you are, still on the island. You and your mate have a family, and enough resources to support everyone. On most of the other islands, the situation is similar. On a few, one or the other partner has died. Some have no kids; others have been quite busy and have 10 or more. Overall, the population is booming — and it will, for a while.
But what happens in another generation, and the generation after that, and after that? The gene pool on each island is pretty shallow. If there are going to be children, they’re going to be the product of inbreeding — and with every generation, it will get worse.
This is habitat fragmentation. Add up all the islands, and it may seem like there’s plenty of space for the human population. But when they have no way to reach unrelated individuals, reproductive success suffers within a couple generations.
And that’s where we are with scrub-jays. They can’t really leave the places they live because they’re surrounded by unsuitable habitat. It’s not quite as dire as just one pair per area, but we’re dealing with small populations that are already to some degree related. And some of the areas set aside as ideal already have seen the number of birds there shrinking — in some cases, vanishing entirely.
What can we do? Nothing, except perhaps try to capture some birds and maintain the species in captivity. It was probably never possible for scrub-jays to share a densely populated Florida with us. The best thing to do is understand how we’ve failed the scrub-jays and try to do better for the species that still have a chance of seeing the 22nd century.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, email him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.