Florida Scrub Jay In Flight Close Up With Acorn In Mouth
Florida Scrub Jays Are The Only Bird Species That Lives Exclusively in Florida

Of the 553 bird species reported in eBird for Florida (sixth in rankings of states), Florida Scrub Jays are the only bird species that lives exclusively in Florida.

I am Floridian by birth, and an avid birder, but I was surprised to learn this fact just a few short years ago. I suspect it was my residual Florida Man attitude coming through. My long-held view from a feral childhood spent outdoors in Florida is that wild, exotic, one-of-a-kind Florida would naturally be home to multitudes of equally wild, exotic, endemic bird species. That’s not the case. The truth is Florida does have many wild and exotic bird species, it’s just that most have moved there or just visit in the winter. Not unlike the plentiful human Snowbirds.

Florida Scrub Jay In Scrub Oak

Once I learned this fact, I thought that being the only endemic bird species and a creature of the uniquely Florida inland sand dune and ridge geology that is millions of years old and uniquely Floridian – the Florida Scrublands – would make the Florida Scrub Jay a shoo-in for a change in the state bird of Florida. They could replace the awesome, but wide-ranging (State bird in four other states) and common Northern Mockingbird. I thought they would be the perfect symbol for the wild, exotic, and unique Florida-Before-Disney. Scrub Jays would symbolically capture the industriousness and grit of the indigenous peoples and earliest settlers (including my ancestors) that endured and persevered in the Florida wilds. The pioneers that contributed sweat and blood, literally mega-barrels of blood, to make Florida the civilized, air-conditioned destination site it is today. A ceremonial throwback, if you will, to wild, untamed Florida. I thought changing would be an easy sell to the Legislature who must rule on such matters of importance. Wrong.

I need to add some pertinent information for the rest of the story to resonate. Not only are Florida Scrub Jays emblematic of the wild Florida of times past, but they are also emblems of the environmental problems besetting Florida’s rapidly changing – disappearing – north and central Florida ecoregion. Florida Scrub Jays are listed as Federally Threatened. It is estimated that only 4,000 remain in the patchwork of remaining scrublands. Because they rarely move from their birth spot, the surviving birds are in fragmented small populations making them highly vulnerable to the continuing environmental changes resulting from habitat loss and degradation. Many of the same changes, by the way, that are negatively impacting human ‘scrubland’ inhabitants.

As is true of all evolutionary design, scrublands exist for a reason. They are not ‘wastelands’. They provide important environmental services, in this case most related to water quantity and quality.

Ninety percent of Florida’s drinking water – approximately seven billion gallons of water each day – is drawn from the Floridian aquifer system. The Floridan aquifer system contains the largest aquifers within the state, including the Upper Floridan aquifer across north and central regions and the south’s Lower Floridan aquifer. Geology above these two aquifers is very different. High porosity from principally limestone and sediment close to the surface defines the upper aquifer. It has a higher rechargeability potential from rainfall. The lower aquifer is deeper and contains more low permeability rock that water cannot easily flow through resulting in brackish, or slightly salty water in the deeper Lower aquifer. Low permeability rock also acts as a barrier to north to south flow, further trapping the lower quality water below the highly populous south central and southern Florida regions. Pumping and transferring water from the more rural north to south-central and south metropolises is fast becoming a classic water war.  

Scrublands are critically important battlefields in this war. Scrublands are Florida’s oldest ecosystem and are found on a sequence of sand ridges and ancient dune fields which are oriented essentially north-south in the peninsula. They are remnants from times when sea levels rose and inundated much of what is now Florida. These upland habitats were isolated by water forming sandy desert-like hilltop islands. They remain desert-like and arid because their low nutrient, minimal vegetation sand composition rapidly drains a high percentage of Florida’s abundant rainfall directly into the Floridian aquifer system. Making them, especially in combination with adjacent pine flatwoods a major source of Upper aquifer recharge.

Florida Scrub Jay With Acorn

That Scrublands provide essential conduits to the Floridian aquifer system has been known for long time, but the prevailing view was, and in some quarters still is, the aquifer system is inexhaustible. Land management’s intersection with water management was mostly focused on drainage for agriculture and development, flood control and navigation. Natural resources were to be used, controlled, and modified to achieve these outcomes. Exhibits A, B, C were the draining of the Everglades and building the Kissimmee and Cross Florida canals. A series of natural and manmade environmental disasters in the early and mid-20th century made it clear that this strategy was having the exact opposite effect. Florida was fast becoming inhospitable and was going to have to spend billions of taxpayers’ dollars to rebuild the environmental services of the lost natural resources. Exhibits A, B, C 2.0 defining the change in attitude are the restoration of the Everglades and restoring the Kissimmee and Ocklawaha natural river flows consumed by the canals.

This recognition of the value of the state’s water natural resources to the states livability led to the 1972 “Year of the Environment” legislation – enactment of the Environmental Land and Water Management Act, the Comprehensive Planning Act, the Land Conservation Act, and the Water Resources Act. All built on the premise that land use, growth policy and water management cannot be separated. A central concern of this balancing act was the preservation of Upper Floridian aquifer system scrubland recharge areas essential to sustain growth the length of Florida.

A reasonable and sound sentiment. But unfortunately, easily circumvented. Local authorities were, and still are, able to get variances to build on these areas if they can show reasonable and beneficial reasons to issue a land use permit. Increased tax revenues from increased development growth are almost always deemed reasonable. (Until it’s not. Just ask Zephyrhills, the city famous for bottled water, which is growing so fast that to make sure it has enough fresh water for everyone it’s putting a pause on all new development for a year.)

As a result, 80% of recharge areas have been lost and the Floridian aquifer system is at risk of being depleted over the next 30 years.  

What does all this have to do with the Florida Scrub Jays as the state bird? Well like everything these days it’s a political conspiracy quagmire best captured in this quote by Marion P Hammer, former chief NRA lobbyist in Florida:

Florida Scrub Jay Profile

“Attempts to change the state bird to the scrub-jay began in 1999. It was a scam for extreme environmentalists to get tax dollars and designate areas of Central Florida as “protected.” The effort was to stop people who owned property in those areas from building or doing anything on the property they owned.  The mockingbird was a victim in this scam.”

In keeping with attack politics Hammer went on to character assassination in a variety of editorials:

“Scrub-Jays are evil little birds that rob the nests of other birds and eat their eggs and kill their babies. One might call that street gang behavior in the avian community. The state bird is about representing Florida and that is the greater purpose. The Scrub-Jay simply doesn’t fit that purpose.”

Responding to scrub jay supporters’ statements that they were so gentle as to eat out of people’s hands, she said: “Begging for food isn’t sweet. It’s lazy and it’s a welfare mentality.”

(Compared to the Mockingbird) “the Scrub-Jay can’t even sing – it can only squawk.”

State birds don’t have anything to do with gun laws so Hammer’s stance must be a personal one but being used to getting what she wanted from the legislature, the annual legislative bills calling for the change from Northern Mockingbird to Scrub Jay have been consistently defeated.

On the other hand, the conspiracy to use environmental protections to steal lands from their rightful owners has been annually upheld. Plentiful and safe drinking water for all be damned.

Note: This post focused on objective value of scrublands in sustaining Florida’s freshwater supply. It is intentional avoidance of the ‘tree hugger’ point-of-view. I have found that calls for ‘save the environment’ fall on deaf ears in legislatures controlled by the political party in Red states and is taken to the far reaches of sillydom in Blue states. But I think that Floridan scrublands are worth saving for the simple reason that their early isolation led to a unique ecosystem that sustains at least 40 endemic species. True Florida wildness. This is a surprising number given the arid and hot conditions – the ‘wastelands’. Turning these wastelands into ‘economic beneficial’ use ranks Florida among the top five states at risk for species extinction. This distinction does not seem to matter to the current political leadership. Maybe the Dodo bird would make a good Florida state bird for these short-sighted, narrow-minded non-statesmen and women. Which is probably best since none of them could make it a day in the wild Florida.

Florida Scrub Jay In Flight Close Up

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