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Florida Scrub-Jay research at Archbold Biological Station

September 17, 2013

A guest post by Erin Feichtinger

The sun rises, revealing the dense fog enveloping the scrubby landscape. Even in April, it’s warm and humid at dawn, a harbinger of the heat to come. The scrub is a relict ecosystem, one once common in the southeast but now trapped in peninsular Florida. We are searching for Florida Scrub-Jays, birds that are found only in the Florida scrub in fire-maintained habitats featuring short, scrubby oaks. Florida Scrub-Jays are cooperative breeders, meaning that the young stay with their parents for at least a year to aid in raising their siblings and territory defense. The population of scrub-jays here at Archbold Biological Station has been the subject of a long-term study that began in 1969. Scrub-jay breeding pairs establish territories that they occupy until death. Each spring, the territories are mapped. Once a month, the researchers visit every jay territory and conduct a census. This is our task today.

I hop into the truck with binoculars and a jar of peanuts. The jays that live here are trained to respond to a “pshh” sound and retrieve peanuts thrown by the biologists.

“Pshh!” we say.

Florida_Scrub_Jay

I turn and hear the flap of wings descending near the truck. The peanuts bring the jays close so we can read the bands around their legs. Each jay has a unique color combination of three bands that serves as an ID. Because all territories are visited once a month and each jay has a unique ID, we can determine which jays are still in the population and when they have died. During the breeding season, the researchers follow the fates of all nests and nestlings. This allows them to determine how many young each breeding pair produces. From the information on survival and reproduction on every jay that has lived and died at Archbold in the past 44 years, we can analyze how the population as a whole has changed over time.

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