In addition to certain areas of the city, Warm Mineral Springs offers a potential habitat site for the threatened species
NORTH PORT — Noted environmentalist and Florida scrub jay expert Jon Thaxton first developed an appreciation for the bird shortly after he started an ecology club while a student at Venice High School in 1973.
Thursday, the 62-year-old Thaxton, currently senior vice president for Community Investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, told the North Port City Commission that the land within the city limits can provide crucial habitat for the scrub jay, the only bird unique to the state of Florida.
“Every other bird you see in the state of Florida you can find somewhere outside of the state boundaries,” Thaxton said.
Florida scrub jays are considered a threatened species by both the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and are listed as “vulnerable to extinction” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Thaxton’s presentation followed a June proposal made by Edie Driest, chair of North Port Friends of Wildlife, and Debbie Blanco for the city to ask Sarasota County to consider buying two potential scrub jay habitat areas through its Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program.
The board at first agreed to ask the county about purchasing 125 acres east of Constitution Drive and next to the Myakkahatchee Greenway Corridor. But in July, it backed off of that idea, in part because Sarasota County could not buy the land and then deed it to the city for ownership.
A 2006 scrub jay habitat survey identified an overlay district within the city — primarily near the other site Driest and Blanco championed, encompassing roughly 33 acres north of Americana Avenue.
People who seek to build a home in that area must include scrub jays as part of an environmental survey — a process during which a recorded scrub jay call is played several times between March and October, to see if any birds respond.
A picture of Thaxton with a scrub jay perched on the fingers of his right hand led off a PowerPoint presentation he used to illustrate his talk.
City Commissioner Vanessa Carusone added that when she grew up in the 1970s, South Venice was heavily populated with scrub jays and was noted for its scrub jay population.
“You fed them peanuts with your hand,” she added.
Thaxton said the South Venice birds were all congregating there but never had a chance to reproduce and died out.
“It takes a Florida scrub jay breeding pair, on average, seven years to replace themselves,” Thaxon said, then added that the typical breeding age is three to five years old.
Their biggest problem is that their favored habitat — sandy soil without a dense tree canopy, known as scrubby flatwoods — is prime for human development, too.
“All of our airports and all of our graveyards are on old scrub sites, because of the high, dry nature of it,” Thaxton said.
Thaxton said a byproduct of General Development Corp. digging 81 miles of canals and waterways and building roads in North Port decades ago has been a lowering of the water table in the area — creating land suitable for scrub jay habitat.
“It created vegetation where we’re now seeing the birds, because they had no place else to go,” Thaxton said. “We’re starting to see the bird showing up in North Port where we would not expect them and show up where we have not seen them in before.”
He pointed to Warm Mineral Springs as another area prime for scrub jays, adding that the birds likely cohabitated with humans in the prehistoric era — partly because they see humans as a source of food.
“It’s a disarming animal, it’s very attractive, it’s very colorful, it’s very friendly,” Thaxton said. “It’s really kind of cool.”