It’s been said that all scientific discoveries begin with someone saying, “Hmm, that’s funny….” That’s what happened in 1969, when the late Glen Woolfenden (Cornell ’53) caught sight of three scrub-jays tending a single nest in the sandy hillocks of central Florida. Three years later, a summer intern named John Fitzpatrick (now the Cornell Lab’s director) joined Woolfenden to begin an extraordinarily productive 35-year collaboration.
Now spanning more than four decades, the work of these two scientists blossomed into one of the longest-running studies of any wild organism. Fitzpatrick and his collaborators brought to light the strange phenomenon of cooperative breeding, in which jays help raise their siblings. They also explored the jays’ advanced cognitive abilities, discovered how young jays often “inherit the back-40,” clarified the ecological role of wildfire in the jays’ survival, and helped document how isolation leads to the genetic divergence that creates new species.
The research brought attention and care to a species that today numbers fewer than 6,000 individuals in the wild and that exists nowhere in the world outside of Florida. In a state whose human population has nearly quadrupled since 1960, the Florida Scrub-Jay has lost much of its choice scrub habitat to citrus groves and subdivisions.
The Florida Scrub-Jay was federally listed as threatened in 1987. Through long years of fieldwork coupled with recent DNA work, Fitzpatrick’s research team has revealed key actions that can save the species. Because the jays almost never cross patches of unfamiliar habitat more than 8 km wide, it’s essential to keep or restore connections between scrub habitat patches, or to preserve small “stepping-stone” patches between the larger ones. In the absence of either, the birds become isolated from one another, making them even more vulnerable to extinction.
Genetic analyses show how it would be a tragic mistake to write off any population as conservation decisions are made. In the past, some have suggested concentrating resources to save jays in only a few strongholds. Yet the research reveals that some groups are as different genetically as two other species, the Western Scrub-Jay, and Island Scrub-Jay, are from each other. Florida Scrub-Jay populations aren’t interchangeable; lose one population, and you’ve lost a piece you can’t replace.
Recently, the researchers also discovered why simply saving land won’t save the species. When the scrub goes more than 10 years without burning, jay nests begin to fail, dispersing jays shun the area, and jay numbers fall. The unique wildlife of Florida’s scrub habitats evolved for millennia with lightning and wildfires that periodically burned and renewed the landscape. Prescribed burning is needed to mimic these natural cycles so that the native scrub and its wildlife can survive.
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More than 35 years after the scrub-jays sparked his curiosity and helped launch his career in science, John Fitzpatrick is now director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. His passionate pursuit of answers through science are emblematic of the Cornell Lab’s approach to all its work: to conserve the world through knowing it.
Looking ahead, Fitzpatrick and other Cornell Lab scientists are investigating how viruses such as equine encephalitis and West Nile circulate in and regulate jay populations. They’re also helping several of Florida’s counties plan how to manage their public lands so that these special jays remain a cherished fixture.
Despite the Florida Scrub-Jays’ tenuous environmental position, they’re still easy to find if you get to the right spot. Visit a Florida reserve such as Archbold Biological Station or Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and keep your eyes out for a medium-sized, long-tailed, blue songbird that perches high atop shrubs or pine snags, or hops along the road edge in search of crickets. Some places, they’ll even perch on your hands or head!
Here at the Cornell Lab, we’re doing all we can to keep it that way. Won’t you join us?
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