We know that the Lake Wales Ridge harbors some really unique life and habitats. We know that the local scrub is regulated by fire. But what exactly is the prime habitat for the Florida Scrub Jay? Let me just show you…
As you can see here, Florida Scrub Jays like low scrub habitat with a mosaic of oaks and palmettos growing under five or six feet. As the head ornithologist at Archbold said, “If you can’t see the horizon you aren’t in good habitat.” Typically this short vegetation has patches of open white sand in spots where you will often find Scrub Jays foraging for fallen acorns and insects.
At first glance, wanting to live in a big wide open environment may not seem ideal. As a bird, you are easily exposed to predators from above. However, this is where Scrub Jays thrive, so let’s explore why.
If you watch the behavior of Florida Scrub Jays, you quickly realize they have evolved to thrive in open habitats with short stature vegetation. First off, they aren’t the most agile of fliers. Sure, they get from point A to point B just fine, but up against an avian predator, they simply aren’t going to out maneuver a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk, especially not in close quarters. Scrub Jay defense depends on one thing, an early warning system.
When Florida Scrub Jays are foraging, there is always a single family member that sits at the highest point in the area, typically a dead snag, and keeps watch. When a predator is sighted, he gives a call and then the entire family reacts. The reaction, and the call for that matter, depends on whether it’s an avian or terrestrial predator. In the case of an avian predator, all the birds will dive for cover and hide. This only works for open habitat where the sentinel can see the bird coming from far enough away so he can hide too.
If a family of scrub jays lives in more marginal habitat where vegetation is higher and the sentinel can’t see as far, then the danger increases. The sentinel can’t see potential predators until they are much closer, and his life becomes quite dangerous because he has to sound then alarm and then get to cover. A closer predator means less time to hide and more chance of being the predator’s next meal.
For a habitat that burns on a rotation of somewhere between every few years and every quarter century, ideal habitat exists typically about 3-6 years after a burn. So what about all that other habitat that hasn’t burned recently enough? Is it devoid of scrub jays? No, they are there and living just fine. However, it’s likely that their mortality is a bit higher, their territories might be a bit bigger, and overall quality of life is likely lower than those birds able to hold and defend territories covering prime habitat.