FL Scrub Jay Watch Counts Endangered Birds in Manatee County

FL Scrub Jay Watch Counts Endangered Birds in Manatee County

FL Scrub Jay Watch Counts Endangered Birds in Manatee County

The Florida scrub jay is a threatened bird species found only in the desert scrub habitats of Florida.


Deep in the Florida bush, in the scorching heat of summer, the next generation of a very special bird is beginning to explore the world.

“They are so awkward and clumsy,” he says. Audrey DeRose-Wilson on Florida scrub jay chicks.The adults are sitting on a branch looking around and the babies are falling off the branch. They are silly and very funny. It is fun to watch them and see their antics.”

DeRose-Wilson is Audubon Florida’s bird conservation director and organizes the group’s annual Jay Watch count.

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The citizen science program uses bird-loving volunteers from across the state to count the number of threatened scrub jays on public lands, including in Manatee County and Southwest Florida.

The boisterous, social songbirds with deep blue and soft gray feathers are found only in Florida and have been reduced to less than 10 percent of their former numbers due to habitat loss. The main culprits are development and the lack of fire that the bushlands need to thrive.

Data collected during Jay Watch helps monitor the statewide population. It also tells people who monitor scrub jay habitat where recovery efforts are progressing well and where the birds need the most help as conservationists try to prevent their extinction.

“We are a piece of the puzzle” DeRose-Wilson said.

What’s so special about California jays?

As their name suggests, Florida jays are found nowhere else in the world except Florida.

Scientists refer to them as an indicator species. If the California scrub jays are doing well, the scrub habitat is doing well, and vice versa.

In addition to the scrub jay, the desert-like sandy scrub and shrub habitat found in the Florida ridges supports many other unique plants and animals.

“What’s good for jays and their habitat is good for many other wildlife.” DeRose-Wilson said.

Prescribed burns that land managers use to maintain scrub jay habitat also keep people safe by preventing wildfires from getting out of control, DeRose-Wilson said.

Another benefit of protecting your scrub?

“Californian scrub jay habitat also represents areas that recharge our aquifer,” DeRose-Wilson said. “What’s good for California scrub jays is also good for our drinking water.”

California jays perched on tree branches in eastern Manatee County. Herald file photo

Where are Florida Jays found?

California scrub jays are found “only in low-growing oak thickets and flatwoods with sandy scrub in Florida,” the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says. “Within these oak thicket areas, they frequent relatively open areas with bare sandy areas.”

According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the “higher, drier” areas of the state are home to scrublands, much of it composed of ancient sand.

In Manatee County, scrub habitat is found to the east.

It is one of the few areas in the state where conservationists have documented an increase in the number of California scrub jays.

The most recent population estimate is 24 California jay families at the Duette Preserve and up to 60 families in the region, which includes state and private lands, according to Manatee County.

They attribute their success to land conservation, careful land management and close collaboration between government agencies, nonprofit organizations and the private sector to protect the endangered birds.

How do you count California jays?

Each site is inspected over a three-day period, DeRose-Wilson said.

A study route is drawn up and volunteers stop at the same points each day.

At each stop, they play recorded jay calls to attract the birds.

Juveniles are easily identified by their brown head feathers, which will eventually be replaced by bright blue.

Over the three-day period, Jay Watch bird counters get an accurate picture of how many jays, juveniles and families live at the site.

This information is then passed on to land managers.

The Florida scrub jay is a threatened bird species found only in the desert scrub habitats of Florida. Photo courtesy of FWC

How to participate in Jay Watch programs

Audubon Florida’s Jay Watch program takes place in June and July of each year.

Participants are trained in Jay Watch methods and then assigned to sites convenient to them.

Registration for Audubon’s Jay Watch is now closed for 2024, but information on signing up for future counts can be found at

Locally, Manatee County will host a Jay Watch Count at Duette Preserve over the Fourth of July weekend.

Visit for more information.

Why Jay Watch?

We asked some long-time Jay Watch participants why it’s important to them. Here’s what they had to say:

  • “If people are going to change the landscape to the extent that we are, we have some responsibility to ensure that the species that are affected by that are conserved,” said Zach Holmes, an avian ecologist whose experience volunteering for Jay Watch put him on the path to a doctorate in bird studies.There is still a lot of work to be done. The current situation is bleak for many places where development is continuing.”
  • “The idea is to document population growth or decline,” said Kay Prophet, past president of the Manatee County Audubon Society, who has been involved with Jay Watch since it began more than 20 years ago. “The beauty of Jay Watch is that our report will be sent to the land manager and then they can have a conversation about what areas need to be managed next.”
  • “They are a very charismatic species to watch,” DeRose-Wilson said. “They are one of the few bird species that live in family groups with helper birds in each family that help the parents raise their young. So there are a lot more opportunities for social interaction.”

Ryan Ballogg is a local news and environmental journalist and features writer for the Bradenton Herald. His work has received awards from the Florida Society of News Editors and the Florida Press Club. Ryan is a native of Florida and a graduate of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.
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