Scrub Jay

Island Scrub-Jay: Blue Crusader

By Ellen Lambeth; Photos by Chuck Graham

Come visit an island where the habitat hero is… a BIRD!

Have you ever heard people call Batman the “Caped Crusader”? Well, the hero of this story doesn’t wear a cape. But it does have flashy blue wings. It also wears a mask of sorts: a band of black feathers around its eyes.

This feathered crusader is called the island scrub-jay. It lives on the small island seen here and no place else on Earth. The island, called Santa Cruz, is just off the coast of southern California. It’s one of the Channel Islands and is now nationally protected parkland.

island scrub-jay
The island scrub-jay is bigger, brighter, and bluer than its closest jay relatives.

The island scrub-jay’s crusade isn’t to fight crime in Gotham City, of course. It’s to restore the island’s wilderness. Keep reading to find out why—and how.

island scrub-jay
“Hey, stay away from MY fig tree!” this jay’s threatening gaze seems to say.

Helping the Island

Like its crow cousins, this scrub-jay will eat just about anything it can grab: spiders and bugs, lizards and snakes, even the eggs and babies of other birds. It also eats fruits and nuts.

Here’s the neat part: In the fall, the jays gather acorns from the island’s oaks and bury them in different places. With their awesome memories, the birds can later find their secret hiding places. Then they eat the nuts during the winter when other food is scarce. But they don’t find all the acorns. The ones they miss can then sprout and grow into new trees. That’s “gardening for nature” at its very best!

island scrub-jay
This scrub-jay is about to bury that acorn for eating later. But if the bird forgets about it, the acorn may grow into a new oak tree.

Why is that so important to the island? Because long ago, ranchers had moved in with their sheep, pigs, and other livestock. Over the years, these farm animals trampled and ate up the island’s native plants. But once the land and wildlife of Santa Cruz became protected, the ranchers left and their livestock was removed. The natural vegetation then had a chance to grow again. And, without even being aware of it, the scrub-jays took on their crusade: re-planting the island’s oak woodlands!

island scrub-jay
Scientists make regular visits to Santa Cruz. They capture some of the birds, check their health, then let them go. The good news is, both the jays and their habitat are doing better all the time!

Helping the Jay

More oaks—and the return of other native plants—give the scrub-jays a boost, too. The birds depend on the oaks for food and places to nest. Since this is the only place the jays live, the disappearance of the trees meant the birds were in danger of disappearing, as well.

Now—with protection and with the jays and trees naturally helping each other—things are getting better for both. But there are still dangers ahead, including disease and climate change. It’s a good thing that scientists are plotting ways to help keep these blue crusaders and their habitat safe and healthy.

island scrub-jay
This island scrub-jay seems to look forward to a bright future. Way to go, jay!
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