Climate Change Brings New Risks to Vulnerable Scrub-Jay Populations

With warming temperatures on the horizon, flooding and drought-related food challenges could pose severe, additional stress to an already declining statewide population.

As our state’s only endemic bird species, the Florida Scrub-Jay may be extremely vulnerable to threats affecting its increasingly rare upland habitat, especially compared to other species with larger ranges.

As the average global temperature continues to increase, sea level rise creates the potential for coastal scrub habitat flooding. Scrub-jays currently living in coastal scrub would be forced to move inland or face extirpation if they remain in place. Rainfall is projected to become more unpredictable with trends toward deeper, longer-lasting droughts and heavier, longer-lasting rainfall events.

All of these factors — higher average temperatures and more severe droughts and rainfall events of longer duration — will have consequences for the prey base of Florida Scrub-Jays. Droughts will deplete insect (especially caterpillars — a favorite food), arthropod (e.g. spiders), and amphibian (lizards and frogs) populations, while changing acorn production by scrub-oaks in unknown ways. Too much rainfall day after day prevents scrub-jays from feeding and floods their foraging habitat, putting food under water and out of reach. Food challenges would pose severe, additional stress to an already declining statewide population.

Sea level rise and the increased severity and frequency of large storms could wreak havoc on remaining scrub habitat by forcing people to move away from coastal communities and pave over the high-and-dry central areas of our state with some of the largest remaining scrub-jay populations. Encroachment of human activity around central Florida scrub preserves will increase other threats promoting the spread of invasive species, fire suppression, and disease.

Moreover, intense storms during nesting season washes out nests, decimating entire broods and hurting the longterm recovery of a species that has declined by 90% in the past century.

In fact, research shows that Florida Scrub-Jays are already changing their behavior. Each year, monitored jay families are nesting earlier and earlier. What will be the consequences of this earlier nesting season? We don’t know yet.

Through Jay Watch, staff and volunteers are helping restore scrub habitat across the state. Results of annual Jay Watch surveys are provided to land managers directly responsible for planning prescribed fires that rejuvenate scrub habitat and thereby open optimum habitat for jays to cache acorns and spot approaching predators. By combining efforts with groups such as the FWC Ridge Rangers, we help remove invasive sand pines that blanket bare sand areas where scrub-jays cache acorns for their winter food supply.

Here at Audubon Florida, we are committed to fighting climate change and conserving critical habitats while planning for increased resiliency. To advocate for green initiatives in your community, check out our brand new model ordinance toolkit, or sign up for our Advocate newsletter to stay up to date on how you can make a difference during state legislative sessions. 

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