Though I like to brag that I’m a Florida boy, born and bred, I must confess that I’ve never seen the state’s sole endemic bird species—the scrub jay.
It used to be easy to see scrub jays. They were once found all over Central Florida. But people's insatiable need to develop every corner of the state has pushed the bird to the edges. We’ve lost more than 90 percent of our native scrub jay population to habitat destruction.
However, pockets of Old Florida still exist, and they're where you will find this threatened species. One of the most likely places to meet a scrub jay face to face is Oscar Scherer Park. And an even more likely way to see them is to go on one of Jon Thaxton’s morning tours.
I drove to Nokomis and met Thaxton when the park gates opened at 8 a.m. earlier this spring. Thaxton is the 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 has studied the jays at Oscar Scherer and elsewhere in Florida, and he and a handful of other conservation-minded Floridians helped save the park almost 40 years ago.
“They wanted to turn it into another golf course and subdevelopment,” Thaxton said as he slowly led me through the 1,400-acre park on our way to see the scrub jays. “But we stopped them.”
Oscar Scherer is what Southwest Florida is supposed to look like: open sandy areas, treeless but for the occasional slash pine, flat expanses filled with impenetrable palmetto, three species of oak that burn before they get taller than 10 feet.
The fine, white sand on the trails is the very same fine, white sand that makes up all of Siesta Key’s famous beaches. The quartz sand was deposited here millions of years ago after eons of tectonic grinding of the Appalachian mountains. The twists and turns of the landscape brought each grain of sand to us. The result is a one-of-a-kind habitat where the scrub jay can live.
Thaxton is a Florida man. He grew up not far from the park, playing on the train tracks that now make up Legacy Trail. As I followed him, he rattled off facts about the bird.
“It takes them five to 10 days to build a nest," he said. "They only use dead twigs off living trees and line the nest with palm fibers. A breeding pair lives in a 25-acre piece of land for their entire lives. These scrub jay territories have been passed down by nesting pairs to their older sons for hundreds and hundreds of years. Many of these territories were perhaps in place before Europeans ever set foot in Florida.”
The only things that interrupted Thaxton's lecture were his own sudden calls to the bird: "SHHHHP! SHHHHP! SHHHHP!"
The Florida scrub jay caches about 4,000 acorns annually 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 only a handful of animals that is capable of self recognition.” Alzheimer researchers are studying the bird’s memory, hoping that their brains are a portal to cognitive understanding.
Thaxton frequently takes people out to Oscar Scherer to bring attention to the plight of the scrub jay and their shrinking habitat. He gives tours to school groups, friends, strangers and even the occasional politician.
In fact, he convinced state Rep. James Buchanan, R-Osprey, to join him this past spring to see why the scrub jay should be named Florida’s official state bird. A bill, H.B. 207, had been filed to recognize the scrub jay, the third time activists have tried to have the bird honored, and Thaxton and others were hopeful it would pass. Thaxton played to Buchanan’s family values platform. “I told him they’re completely monogamous," Thaxton said. "Truly the quintessential ambassador of Judeo-Christian values.”
But the bill died in subcommittee, and the northern mockingbird remains our state bird—the same state bird as Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.
Why has it been such an impossible task to cherish Florida’s only endemic bird?
“Some are concerned that designating it would create some regulatory burden,” Thaxton said. “It’s a baseless argument. For the last 70 years, the mockingbird has been the state bird. Has the presence of a mockingbird ever stopped development? Of course not.”
And now, Thaxton says, time is running out. Unlike the bald eagle, whose population has significantly rebounded thanks in large part to conservation efforts and its predilection for scavenging county landfills, Thaxton claims the scrub jay’s aptitude for adapting to human altered environments is “zero to none.”
“Most of the threatened and endangered species of the world are going extinct,” Thaxton explained. “This concept that we can come in and make these wholesale changes and the bird is going to adapt is just bullshit—a way that we make ourselves feel good.”
He added that some people point to recently developed areas in south Venice that still retain some scrub jays as evidence that they will adapt to us. “It’s just not true,” he said. “We can’t just go in there and obliterate the land and believe they will make due with hibiscus and manicured lawns. They will all die.”
Then I saw it. Perched in the dense shrub of a Chapman oak, the bird was watching us before we could see it. My first scrub jay—metallic blue with long-ish, 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 as comfortable on the ground as in the air. It looked unafraid and indifferent. Then a commotion started. It hopped over to a young live oak and was joined by three other scrub jays. They were looking somewhere in the brush and making a racket.
“They’ve spotted a snake,” Thaxton said. “They’re warning each other and everything else in the park.”
After the birds sufficiently policed the intruder, they took interest in us again. Thaxton juggled a peanut a couple more times by a jay that had perched on the wire fence by the trail. Then he held out his hand. The jay jumped off the fence and took a probing lap by Thaxton’s outstretched peanut. A moment later it flew to his hand, and ate the treat right out of his palm.
It felt special to be in the presence of this bird. To experience something so particular in a homogenizing world is rare. It used to be that you’d have to travel halfway across the world to see a giant boa constrictor in the wild. Now, we can’t keep them out of our gardens.
The world is coming to Florida, and it’s pushing other things out. The scrub jay is just one more threatened species feeling the squeeze. Will we be the last generation to see what Florida was meant to be? The scrub jay has lived in our backyard for more than 2 million years. I’m hoping for another million more.