Each spring marks the time of year that Nina Smith loves and dreads the most.
An avid gardener and enthusiastic bird watcher, she says spring is the best time to enjoy both. Renewed growth in the garden is paralleled by nesting and then baby birds.
And Smith's Columbia yard, by her own design, is alive with both. The flowers, shrubs and trees, as well as several bird feeders, on the carefully landscaped property where she and her husband live, attract many kinds of birds.
Her neighborhood also is alive with cats. And, one feline resident in particular plays havoc with the many birds nesting in her yard and in a large surrounding area. Although some people consider the domestic cat a natural predator in search of food, Smith disagrees. She has witnessed how just one cat, admittedly following its predatory instincts but in no way hungry, can dramatically affect an area's bird population.
"I've never seen a cat climb so high," she says, when describing this cat's daredevil sport. Like a heat-seeking missile, the cat hones in on dozens and dozens of active nests throughout the season, and destroys them and their contents.
Although Smith tries to guard the nests in her yard "24 hours a day," of course, it is an impossible task. One day last May she returned home to find one tiny infant robin sitting under the tree where its nest and siblings no longer existed. After waiting in vain to see if there was a parent still around, Smith felt she had to do something to help this featherless baby.
Bird experts will tell you that the survival rate for these orphans, even with human intervention, is almost nil. But Smith persisted, and her combination of warmth and fresh garden worms kept this robin alive.
Providing her charge with its favorite food soon became a full-time activity. The baby sprouted feathers, and soon showed signs of wanting flying lessons. It followed Smith around all day, begging for food and responding to her calls, accepting her as its mother.
She started taking the bird to her vegetable garden at a nearby community garden plot. There was so much bird activity there that she figured that her bird would learn something of how to be a robin instead of relying on humans. Like many people who adopt wild animals, she experienced the conflict between emotional attachment to the bird and wanting it to become self-sufficient.
While she performed her daily chores in the garden, "Buckeroo," as she came to call him, played in the small tomato plants, climbed up the fence and learned to fly. Each day he became braver, flying to ever higher perches, farther away from the garden. But he would always return to Smith's shoulder for worms. For weeks, he refused to learn how to dig his own meals. He squawked and cried until she hand-fed him.
At home, he stayed outside in the yard all day. Smith let him use the spare bedroom at night, for his own protection. He learned, upon being called, to fly into the house at dusk, into the proper room for his rest.
The household managed to survive his early wakeup "songs." Even Smith's own two house cats got into the act, playing with the bird. One cat, Duke, let the bird land on its back.
Wisely, Smith never left the bird alone with her cats. "Cats can't help being cats," she says. Even the neighborhood marauder is a very nice pet, she says. "It's the owners who should know to keep it inside during bird nesting season."
Slowly, Buckeroo adopted another family of robins frequenting the Smith yard. He eventually learned to feed himself and to venture from the house overnight. Sometimes Smith couldn't make out which robin in the group was hers. "Is that you, Buckeroo?" would bring him forward to greet her.
One day at the garden plots, he refused to come when called. Sad, but satisfied that her job was done, Smith got in her car to leave. Suddenly, there was a thump against the closed car window. Unharmed, Buckeroo hopped in the door, as if to say, "You wouldn't leave without me, would you?"
While she is gaining a reputation as a bird lady, Smith is very much a garden lady. A native of Athens, Greece, she tends a flower garden that reflects her quest to find plants that come back every year. In Greece, flowers flourish most of the year, she says, as the climate is almost frost-free.
Perennials and plants that reseed themselves are her favorites. These include a yellow Calendula and a unique Four O'Clock variety that produces several different colored flowers on the same plant. Both plants' seeds came from Greece. The Four O'Clock originally included many more colors that this year's seeds produced, including black and white flowers.
Descendants of her original seed produce only yellow, red and bi-colored bloom.
Relatively new to vegetable gardening, she has created two eye-stopping and meticulously kept plots at the community site, combining her flowers with vegetables that also reveal Mediterranean tastes: eggplant, tomatoes and greens. She is looking forward to having a larger vegetable garden next year.
It's been several weeks now since the Smiths have seen their robin. With fall migration time nearing, Smith hopes Buckeroo will be on his way to warmer weather and to a long and independent life.
Green Piece features local gardening tips and profiles of county gardeners every Sunday. It is written by Miriam Mahowald and Mary Gold, two county residents blessed with green thumbs.