Illustration: Meryl Rowin


Why the Scrub-Jay Should Be Florida's State Bird — with Eva Ries

"It was as though magic happened, because I felt a pair of feet in my hand."

This is episode no. 1 of Murmurations,” a podcast asking people why birds and the environment matter to them.


It’s Irene Eva Ries, but everyone calls me Eva. I’m the president of the St. Lucie Audubon Society, and I am an at-large board member of Audubon of Martin County.

I wish that the scrub-jay was Florida’s state bird. Right now it’s the mockingbird, and that’s shared with 11 other states. But it’s an endemic bird. And although there are scrub-jays in the Western United States, they are genetically distinct from our Florida Scrub-Jay, which is listed as threatened by the state of Florida and by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

It has a beautiful dusty-gray breast, it has a gray collar around the back, it’s blue up top with a gray eyebrow, and it has the most unusual call. When they call to their compatriots, they make a rrih! rrih! rrih-rrih-rrih!.

The Florida Scrub-Jay is competing for a home with a lot of human interests, namely citrus groves and golf courses and human housing. The scrub-jays need a particular type of habitat—lower vegetation in terms of shrubs and trees so they can see their predators. They want bushy shrub trees so they can nest properly, and they want some open sand dune.  

So I was fortunate enough to work with the St. Lucie County Environmental Resources Department, and we were surveying through the Audubon Jay Watch program and doing the yearly count. We were in a place called Indrio Savannahs Preserve.

As we were surveying, I was getting bitten like crazy by horse flies and delta flies, and I was smacking them. And I had, before long, three big fat flies that I had exterminated, so to speak. We had a biologist from the FWC (Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission), and he says, “You know, Eva, you should just give this to the jays, because it’s what they eat anyway.” I looked at my boss, and I said, “Is this going to break all the rules?” And she said, “No , just give it to them. It’s what they’re going to eat.”

So, we stopped and we started counting. And I put those big fat flies into the palm of my hand and I put my hand over my head. And within two seconds, an adult came down and it was as though magic happened, because I felt a pair of feet in my hand and I felt the scrub-jay beak come down once, and twice, and three times, and take all those lovely flies and swallow them down.

And as soon as the adult did that, four juveniles in the tree started shrieking uncontrollably, and I knew what that meant. It meant, “Give those flies to us! You can’t eat all those flies!”

And the adult looked at me and flew away, and the juveniles followed behind it. It was just a bit of comical magic to see them do that, because so many people in Florida, first of all, don’t even know about the jays. And secondly, [people] never had that kind of proximity to them to see what they’re like, and how they live, and the way they do things. They’re different in that they have a family grouping—adolescents from the previous nest year that stay and help the parents raise the next generation.

Seeing that was not just educational, it was personally enlightening, but also a bit magical, mystical, and spiritual in a sense, too. You can’t duplicate that in any way.

So, this is a special bird. They’re colorful. They’re lively. They’re interesting. They have families like I do—and they work together.

And so, as people come to Florida and they visit, I want them to know about the scrub-jay. Because I want them to say, “I don’t have this bird on my life list, and the only way I’m going to get it is I’m going to go to Florida, and I have to know where to go to get that.” And if we tell people about scrub-jays, and we help them understand why this bird is important, and why it’s important to save this bird, everybody benefits.

Editor's Note: It's illegal to feed Florida Scrub-Jays—except under the direction of the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission—because it can cause them to become habituated to people. 


Credits: Interviewed and edited by Liz Bergstrom and Purbita Saha; Intro music: Podington Bear, "The Mountain" (CC BY-NC 2.0); Bird calls: Florida Scrub-Jays, Sue Riffe, xeno-canto.


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