Florida Historical Society Stetson Kennedy Award
A portrait of a species on the brink
“I would recommend this book on the strength of the prologue alone. In just seven brilliant pages, author Mark Jerome Walters covers the evolutionary history of birds from dinosaurs to the present, focusing on the line that led to corvids, then to jays, then to the titular species, Florida Scrub-Jay.”—Matt Mendenhall, BirdWatching
“I loved this book. It’s the extraordinary story of an extraordinary bird. Walters has written a powerful and poignant ode to the jay itself and the scrub it depends on—a subtle but beguiling habitat that’s vanishing rapidly, stolen by development, mining, and citrus groves—and also to the remarkable human heroes attempting to rescue this unique and wondrous avian treasure.”—Jennifer Ackerman, author of The Bird Way and The Genius of Birds
“This book begins with enchantment and ends with caution. At the root of both feelings is love, and Walters’s journey with the Florida Scrub-Jay reminds us that in every place of endangerment we can feel all this and more. I came away with increased admiration for those who do the hard work of maintaining species populations in a difficult and changing time.”—Christopher Cokinos, author of Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds
“Walters threads a wonderful, feathery needle from the Scrub-Jay’s dinosaur ancestors up to current ecology and conservation efforts for the species, tying the bird to the geography of Florida and etching a compelling story that shows why individual species and their life histories matter more than ever.”—Daniel Lewis, author of Belonging on an Island: Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawai‘i
“Required reading for anyone considering a career in conservation. There’s no sermon here, just the field notes of an intrepid researcher tracking a threatened species’ struggle against extinction. Let’s hope that as a result of this difficult narrative there’s a happy ending in store for the Florida scrub-jay.”—John Seibert Farnsworth, author of Nature beyond Solitude: Notes from the Field
“Crisscrossing Florida for three years, talking with experts and hoping to find a bright future for one of our rarest birds, Walters reveals the truth of conservation in the Anthropocene: large losses, small gains, and the struggle of others to live among us.”—John M. Marzluff, author of In Search of Meadowlarks: Birds, Farms, and Food in Harmony with the Land
The only bird species that lives exclusively in Florida, the Florida scrub-jay was once common across the peninsula. But as development over the last 100 years reduced the habitat on which the bird depends from 39 counties to three, the species became endangered. With a writer’s eye and an explorer’s spirit, Mark Walters travels the state to report on the natural history and current predicament of Florida’s flagship bird.
Tracing the millions of years of evolution and migration that led to the development of songbirds and this unique species of jay, Walters describes the Florida bird’s long, graceful tail, its hues that blend from one to the next, and its notoriously friendly manner. He then focuses on the massive land-reclamation and canal-building projects of the twentieth century that ate away at the ancient oak scrub heartlands where the bird was abundant, reducing its population by 90 percent.
Walters also investigates conservation efforts taking place today. On a series of field excursions, he introduces the people who are leading the charge to save the bird from extinction—those who gather for annual counts of the species in fragmented and overlooked areas of scrub; those who relocate populations of scrub-jays out of harm’s way; those who survey and purchase land to create wildlife refuges; and those who advocate for the prescribed fires that keep scrub ecosystems inhabitable for the species.
A loving portrayal of a very special bird, Florida Scrub-Jay is also a thoughtful reflection on the ethical and emotional weight of protecting a species in an age of catastrophe. Now is the time to act, says Walters, or we will lose the scrub-jay forever.
Mark Jerome Walters, a journalist and veterinarian, is professor in the Department of Journalism and Digital Communication at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. He is the author of six books, including Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island and Seven Modern Plagues: and How We Are Causing Them.
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