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Scrub Jay Gains Favor As Florida's State Bird
By Jan Hollingsworth
of The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA - The Florida Audubon Society is looking favorably on a threatened jay to replace the mockingbird. The society's board of directors voted this month to support a legislative initiative to make scrub jays the state bird.
The move makes biological as well as historical sense, say ornithologists who point to the scrub jay's unique status. "It's the only bird on the planet found only in Florida," said Gian Basili, an ornithologist for the Florida Audubon Society.
The scrub jay's numbers are dwindling so rapidly that some fear it soon may be found nowhere at all.
"Victims of destroyed and degraded habitat, the birds serve as a symbol of the growth issues that must be dealt with to preserve the state's natural heritage," said Rich Paul, manager of sanctuaries maintained in the Tampa Bay area for the National Audubon Society.
The much-studied jays also display unique breeding behavior, living in communal family units where offspring help their parents raise the next generation.
Five years ago, there were fewer than 4,000 scrub jay families left in the state. "Some areas have lost 50 percent of their jays since then. So it's not really a pretty picture," Basili said.
Most of the remaining populations are confined to the Central Florida ridges, from the Ocala National Forest to Highlands County. Others reside in coastal ridges along the Atlantic Coast.
Small pockets of jays also can be found along Florida's west coast, from Citrus to Glades counties. Little more than a dozen scrub jays are thought to be making their homes in Hillsborough.
"It's a bird that's winking out in little populations all around the state," said Paul.
The turquoise and gray birds require scrub oak habitat, which has patches of exposed, sandy soil where they can hoard acorns.
The jay's habitat is not only being lost to development, it is being rendered uninhabitable when fires are suppressed. Natural fires would clear the area and provide the exposed soil jays need. But suppressing the fires allows the sand clearings to become overgrown, said Basili.
Florida Audubon sees potential educational benefits in designating the threatened jays as the state's official bird. "That increased public awareness may lead to increased sensitivity to its habitat needs," he said.
The next step is to find a legislator willing to sponsor a bill to displace the mockingbird from the state throne it has occupied since 1927. Thus far there are no rumblings of opposition to the plan.
Unlike the scrub jay, the mockingbird lives throughout the southern half of the United States, from Virginia to California. It is the state bird of Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi, as well as Florida.
But there could be some objections. "There might be some folks who really like mockingbirds and want a state bird that everyone can see out their back door," Basili said.
Florida Audubon Society: an organization that studies and protects birds (also National Audubon)
ornithologists: scientists who study birds
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