The wind blows constantly across Florida’s Merritt Island, carrying the scent of Atlantic salt into the scrubland and slash pines. The dense palmettos are buffeted together, their rattle adds to the roar of the wind, the scream of the ospreys, and the distant sputtering of motorcycles. Then the low roar is broken by a flash of blue and a bright, rasping call. Perched on a thin oak branch above the palmettos, a jay sways in the wind. He twitches every few seconds, peering around as he shrieks a warning.
The Florida scrub-jay reigns supreme over his little territory. Tied by evolution to the Florida scrub, this bird lives nowhere else in the world. As land across the state is gobbled up for agriculture and development, hundreds of thousands of acres of scrub have been set aside for conservation during the past two decades. But the Florida scrub-jay population, estimated at just 7,000 birds in isolated pockets around the state, continues to dwindle.
“Whether the scrub-jay lives or dies, locally and regionally, is all going to be a question of land management,” says John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. In the Florida scrub, land management means one thing — fire.
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