Many years ago my boyfriend Tom and I decided to go on a day trip to Lake Kissimmee State Park. It was about an hour’s drive from Orlando. This would be the beginning of our relationship with a very special bird found solely in this state.
So on the appointed day we headed out and as we got closer to our destination started seeing the distinctive, large-headed Kingfishers perched along the telephone wires–a sure sign that water was nearby. We found the entrance to the park and approached the rangers’ station and stopped to chat for a moment while one of the rangers handed us some pamphlets and brochures on the park. He told us of some of the wildlife we may see during our visit including the Florida Scrub Jay and how, within several hundred feet of the station, people can often be seen hand feeding these wild birds. We were intrigued. We had heard of this endangered bird, only located in Florida, and were looking forward to seeing them.
But we had brought no food for them today so we just followed the long road that wound us slowly through the sand pine scrub, palmettos and open wooded areas. As Tom had his eyes ahead while driving and I was looking off to the right into the woods, we both exclaimed at the same time, “Look at the deer”! There walking across the road in front of us were several deer and to my right, where I had been looking, was a small herd that I had wanted Tom to see. He stopped the car while they nonchalantly walked across the path in front of us and joined the ones that I had spied. They didn’t give any indication that they were concerned about our presence at all. They were very relaxed and walking slowly so we got a good look at them. We also saw some wild turkeys rooting around nearby.
We continued on until we came to the lake itself, where we’ve now seen alligators on the banks, bald eagles, wood storks, Sandhill cranes, egrets, turkeys, Great Blue herons, quail, rabbits, and armadillos foraging. This first trip marked one of many that we have made mostly to visit our scrub jay friends.
On our subsequent visit, we came equipped with a bag of peanuts, the favorite hand-out of the Florida Scrub Jay. We parked the car well off the road as we came to the area that the ranger had previously pointed out to us as the spot where we would most likely find our objective. We grabbed our peanuts and with our binoculars around our necks, stood at the edge of the palmetto scrub and with hands held out, palms up, quietly called for the birds to come. Very soon, to our astonishment and delight, there appeared two of them, cocking their heads at us and watching us from the safety of the palmetto scrub. And as we remained motionless and quiet, one gathered its courage and swooped down from its perch and landed in my open palm. I stood transfixed as I watched this beautiful blue bird take one peanut and then another from my hand. I was beyond thrilled! How often do you get the chance to come eyeball-to-eyeball with a bird standing in your hand? Again and again, the two took turns coming to my hand and feeding–sometimes stuffing three or four before flying off. Before long they noticed Tom too had a hand full of peanuts and honored him with visits between them. As we stood there, we noticed a bevy of quail running back and forth in front of us and then we spied a rabbit nearby watching us from the edge of the woods. I felt like I was in a wonderland of wildlife–or a Disney movie!
These birds have a beautiful blue head and wings, with a gray breast and back, long blue tail, black beak, legs and feet and stand about 12 inches tall and weigh between 2.5 and 3 ounces. They need the specific scrub area of Central Florida to survive and have the unique quality, apart from other wild birds, of their tameness to take food from humans. Their habitat has quickly diminished along with the development of Florida and thus have landed on the list of threatened species here. There are thought to be less than 4,000 breeding pairs left. Conservationists are trying to get it proclaimed as Florida’s state bird and bring more awareness to its plight. The Mockingbird, which is our state bird at the present time, is the state bird for several other states as well but the Florida Scrub Jay is one indigenous only to our area. I support it being named our state bird in place of the Mockingbird.
Now, one by one through the years, other family members have become interested in birding and we enjoy this pastime together trading stories of birds that we have seen in our different areas across the country. But nothing beats the joy of having a scrub jay feed from your hand.