My wife Margaret and I were birding at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on the east coast of Florida in January 2016. We were looking specifically for the endangered Florida scrub jay, a species similar to Iowa’s blue jay.
The Florida scrub jay is declining in numbers because of loss of habitat due to Florida’s beachfront development, the planting of citrus groves and the suppression of fire. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate there are only 500 of the birds in the Merit Island Refuge.
We had hiked about halfway of the 1.5-mile long loop trail that went though the prime habitat for the jay, and we had not seen anything- not even a sparrow.
When we came to a bend in the trail, I spotted a jay in the top of a bush that was about six feet high.
Margaret was behind me. I gave her a hand signal to stop and then pointed to the bird. He was posing nicely for our cameras. I began taking pictures of the jay, and I heard my wife’s camera clicking too.
I soon noticed some movement at the base of the shrub. Another jay came onto the path, and it started flying right at my face. I saw every feather of its spread wings and tail, but it was the feet that concerned me. They were only inches away from my eyes.
Several thoughts flashed through my mind: Should I hit it and knock it away or just duck? However, I did nothing but froze in place, and the scrub jay landed on top of my head.
Suddenly, Margaret said, in a half-whisper, “Ray, don’t move. There is a bird on your head.”
Again several thoughts flashed through my mind. I said nothing and stood very still as Margaret’s camera shutter made several clicks. Shortly afterward, the bird flew off my head and landed on the path in front of us.
Margaret said these birds are used to people, and they are begging for food. The bird must have thought she had food because it flew and landed on the top of her head.
Now it was my turn to say, “Margaret, don’t move. There is a bird on the top of your head.”
It then hopped to her shoulder, and I thought the bird was going to walk down her arm in its search for human food.
The other jay soon joined its mate on the path. Both were looking up at us and seemingly begging for a handout. But they had to resort to their natural foods. We did not feed them, but the birds seemed unafraid and very familiar with people and handouts from humans.
We were very pleased to see this rare species and add them to our life list, but we were also sorry that other people had been feeding human food to these wild creatures.