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Meet the bird man of St. Petersburg’s Sunken Gardens

Frank Nesmith tends a colorful flock at the city-owned botanical garden.
Frank Nesmith, 79, head bird curator at Sunken Gardens, says hello to Bobbie Sue, a 30-year-old double yellow-headed amazon and Nesmith’s favorite bird. “Hello,” echoed Bobbie Sue, “I’m a pretty bird!” Thursday, August 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Frank Nesmith, 79, head bird curator at Sunken Gardens, says hello to Bobbie Sue, a 30-year-old double yellow-headed amazon and Nesmith’s favorite bird. “Hello,” echoed Bobbie Sue, “I’m a pretty bird!” Thursday, August 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 23
Updated Aug. 24

ST. PETERSBURG — Frank Nesmith and Bobbie Sue have a close bond.

They’ve known each other for seven or eight years, since Bobbie Sue came to live at Sunken Gardens, the city-owned botanical garden where Nesmith works. Bobbie Sue is cheerful, a quality Nesmith sees in himself. And she enjoys conversation.

What’s unusual about their connection? Bobbie Sue, about 30, is an Amazon parrot.

But people form relationships with the birds, says Nesmith, 79 and the head bird curator for the Gardens.

“Oh, oh, what a grand bird!” Bobbie Sue squawked on a recent Wednesday.

“You’re wound up,” Nesmith told her.

It was a hot morning, but the air was cooler in the shade of leafy shrubs, towering palms and the outstretched branches of an immense live oak. The air smelled of vegetation and damp earth.

Around Nesmith and Bobbie Sue, other birds squawked and whistled. The shaded area of the Gardens houses birds in a handful of enclosures — a term Nesmith prefers to “cages.”

Frank Nesmith, 79, head bird curator at Sunken Gardens, carries a post with a couple of macaws, Thursday, August 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Frank Nesmith, 79, head bird curator at Sunken Gardens, carries a post with a couple of macaws, Thursday, August 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

There’s Mindy, a white umbrella cockatoo that’s also about 30. Mindy’s agreeable, Nesmith said, and just about any of the bird handlers can work with him.

There’s Coconut, a 20-year-old macaw with plumage in a riot of blue, gold, red, green and yellow. He’s new, and it took him a while to get used to the gardens, as with many animals, but he seems to get along well now.

There’s Mitch, an 8-year-old Major Mitchell’s cockatoo. The pink-and-white bird was ornery when he came to the gardens, prone to bite people. But he’s mellowed out, and now he likes to play peekaboo with staff or visitors.

And there’s Bobbie Sue, green with a yellow head.

All told, 11 parrots call Sunken Gardens home: five macaws, four Amazons and two cockatoos. There’s also a kookaburra.

They’re all rescues, given to the Gardens after their previous owners died or could no longer take care of them. They can live decades in human care, and they wouldn’t survive in the wild, Nesmith said.

Near the enclosures that house most of those birds, a flock of flamingos ambled about in a spacious pen. The elders of the group, George and Lucy, preened in the sun near a pond with a fountain.

Flamingoes at Sunken Gardens, Thursday, August 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg.
Flamingoes at Sunken Gardens, Thursday, August 5, 2021 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

George and Lucy were acquired by the Gardens in the mid-1950s, and they’re the last surviving flamingos from the Gardens’ first flock. They were joined by 20 younger flamingos in 2016, after years of fundraising.

Like the birds, Nesmith is a transplant. He moved here in 1986, after a bad fall made it hard to endure Colorado winters. He worked as a paint contractor and built garden features, and he started doing volunteer work for Sunken Gardens.

He had prior experience with birds, too. He’d raised pigeons, chickens and other birds in Colorado, and he worked as a commercial bird breeder in Florida before stopping because of ethical qualms. In 2009, the supervisor of the Gardens offered him a part-time job taking care of its flock.

He now works full time caring for the birds, along with two part-time staff members.

In addition to his work with the birds, Nesmith helps repair the walkways and historic features at Sunken Gardens. Although it might seem a pocket of wilderness in the heart of St. Petersburg, the attraction is actually manufactured and carefully landscaped, built on the site of a sinkhole that its founder drained. It opened to the public in the 1920s, and the city of St. Petersburg bought it in 1999.

Elsewhere in the gardens, brooks babble and koi swim serenely in ponds.

“It’s hard to be in a place this beautiful and not be appreciative and happy,” said Jane Wallace, one of the part-timers who help take care of the birds.

Nesmith has no immediate plans for retirement. He enjoys working with the birds, and he likes the people he works with.

“I love it, or I wouldn’t be here,” he said.

At 10 a.m., the Gardens opened to the public. Brianna Connors and her one-and-a-half-year-old son Bruer came for a walk, as St. Petersburg residents often do.

Mindy is Bruer’s favorite bird. The two often laugh to each other, Connors said. But on this day, Mindy wasn’t in a talkative mood.

Bobbie Sue was more animated.

“Say hello,” the 31-year-old Connors said.

“Hi!” Bruer said.

Bobbie Sue squawked back in greeting.