Through twenty years of the Jay Watch program – ten years led by Audubon Florida – volunteers and staff have collected critical information on Florida Scrub-Jay populations that has led directly to restoration initiatives and advocacy wins.
“Jay Watch does the important, time-consuming work of tracking local populations through annual monitoring. Florida Scrub-Jays have very specific habitat needs that require regular prescribed burns, so regular, local-scale data inform managers of the need for restoration or conservation activities. Jay Watch also inspires advocates who invest in jays and then turn out to push for jay-friendly habitat management.” ~ Audrey DeRose-Wilson, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Florida.
The Florida Scrub-Jay is our state’s only endemic bird species, found nowhere else in the world. It was listed as federally-Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the Endangered Species Act in 1987, largely due to loss of its native scrub habitat and decades of fire suppression that allowed the scrub to become overgrown and unsuitable for scrub-jays. While roller-chopping too-tall oak scrub can reduce the height of the vegetation and eliminate perches for raptors that prey on jays, fire is usually still needed to remove the debris left on the ground; moreover, many plants native to scrub require fire to form seeds. Scrub biodiversity declines over time if a fire doesn’t burn every 5-20 years.
The state’s population of Florida Scrub-Jays is estimated to have declined by 90% since the early 1800s. While jay numbers have continued to decline statewide, their numbers have stabilized or increased at well-managed conservation lands such as the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenways “Triangle” and Jonathan Dickinson State Park. The Jay Watch program directly influences population numbers at the local scale by partnering with land managers to showcase where habitat restoration activities would be beneficial to the jays, and where prescribed fire and roller-chopping has already made a positive impact on their numbers.
Audubon Florida coordinates the Jay Watch community science program across the state. We train and support volunteers to conduct scientific surveys that measure annual nesting success and count the total number of Florida Scrub-Jays at more than 46 sites in 19 counties each summer.
As one example of a site success story: FWC-managed Moody Branch Mitigation Area in Manatee County began using prescribed burns to open up habitat to benefit the Florida Scrub-Jay populations. Because of their efforts, the Jay Watch volunteers recorded 21 jays on the property in 2021 – more than double the numbers this area sustained just five years ago.
“The Jay Watch data is an outstanding resource that the Service has come to rely on over the years. Many of the managed public lands do not have sufficient staff to perform regular surveys for Florida Scrub-Jays due to constraints with employee availability or budget shortfalls and priorities. Having the annual data provides population trends for many of the local populations within our ‘focal landscape’ areas that provide metrics for our species recovery efforts. The data is also incorporated into our 5-Year Reviews for the Status of the Species reporting required by Congress. Having the annual data also informs and prioritizes habitat management funding decisions to aid other agencies in their efforts to support population viability range-wide.” ~ Todd Mecklenborg, USFWS Fish and Wildlife Biologist.
"Volunteers with Audubon's Jay Watch program collect important information that helps land managers understand how to manage public land in which the Florida Scrub-Jay lives. Having lost close to 90% of these jays in the last 50 years, these efforts play a critical role in the long-term survival of the species." ~ Jacqui Sulek, Chapters Conservation Manager, Audubon Florida
The Jay Watch program, with its unique survey protocol, was established by Reed Bowman of Archbold Biological Station and Tricia Martin of The Nature Conservancy in 2002; Tricia and Cheryl Millett at The Nature Conservancy managed the program from 2002-2010. When TNC could no longer support the program, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission managed the program in 2011 and Audubon Florida took over in 2012.
Audubon Florida has worked to protect birds and the places they need in Florida for more than 120 years, advancing common-sense solutions grounded in solid science.