WHIDBEY BIRDING | There are plenty of ways to help birds during the cold winter months

First let me humbly admit that I missed all the December storms. My husband and I escaped to Mexico minutes before the snowflakes began to fall. It was mid January before I returned home to stay.

As reports reached us of the snow and cold, my thoughts went to my bird friends back here on Whidbey. I knew my bird feeders were empty and my birdbath was frozen over.

I felt guilty. I had to remind myself that for millions of years birds have evolved techniques to find food in adverse conditions and to take care of themselves.

A bird’s 10,000 to 20,000 feathers insulate their little bodies. Some birds go into a near-hibernation stupor during the night to conserve energy.

Even when the garden looks dead, the sunflower heads are stripped of their seeds, most of the berries are picked clean and the bird feeders are empty, birds can find food.

Feeding wild birds in extreme conditions undoubtedly helps them.

However, the main reason that we feed wild birds during most of the year is for our own satisfaction, to bring the birds closer to our lives.

Before sitting at my desk to write this article, I refilled the two suet feeders outside my office window. Now I’m watching and waiting to see which birds will discover the offering and return to feeding on the suet. Will the birds remember our free meals?

While I’m waiting, let me answer some questions left on my answering machine about feeding birds in cold weather.

The first thing to remember is this: high calorie and high fat. Seed feeders should offer a high percentage of black-oil sunflower seeds, which contains both.

For those who have Anna’s Hummingbirds visiting all winter, keep your hummingbird feeders filled with the usual mixture of one part sugar to four parts water. You aren’t doing the birds a favor by changing the proportion.

Hurrah, my first bird visitor just arrived at the suet! It’s a bouncy black-capped chickadee. His chick-a-dee dee dee, chick-a-dee dee dee call is likely announcing that the banquet is open again at the Wood/Graves boarding house. I wonder who is listening?

Another high-calorie bird treat is a smear of peanut butter and birdseed. You might stick this on fir or pine cones or just slather it on your suet feeder.

Oh, here comes a dark-eyed junco. Its white tail feathers flash as it flies in and its black-hooded head profiles a soft pink bill. As I turn, it darts away. But I know it will be back.

Another way to help wild birds in winter is to offer fresh, unfrozen water. We have a submersible heater that I plug in with an extension cord and lay in the birdbath. The birds both drink and bathe in the oasis. As it turned out last month, our chicken-flock caregivers had to use the heater to keep the hens’ water thawed.

Now I hear a “mewing” sound from under a rhododendron. Out hops a spotted towhee, another black-hooded bird. It lands first on the small café-style metal table in our courtyard, then leaps to the suet feeder, puffing out its rusty red sides.

A song sparrow sneaks in from a dense viburnum shrub and shyly picks at the suet. A band of dark-eyed juncos arrives, nibbling as voraciously as they did before I left.

The courtyard now seems alive with birdlife. I hear the soft “squeak” from a hairy woodpecker staging in the pine tree. A northern flicker sweeps in, scattering all the little birds to the safely of the low shrubs.

After my month-long absence, I watch their antics with fresh eyes and look forward to publishing this piece in the Record. Then it dawns on me that there may be a justification for feeding wild birds that’s larger than my own self-interest.

Feeding wild birds helps us make a connection to the natural world. By putting out feeders, watching the birds and learning their names, we get to know them. We see their various plumages, examine their beak sizes and shapes, and observe their flight patterns. They become our neighbors, expected visitors, feathered friends.

As I write about the birds and you learn their names, we all get to know them better. They become important to our lives and we naturally move to a position of stewardship, of wanting to provide native habitat and protect them. That’s perhaps the transcendent reason to feed wild birds.

As I finish writing this piece, two more visitors stop in. A downy woodpecker drops in on one feeder and a chestnut-backed chickadee flutters to the other. They, too, remember our banquet.

Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West,” widely available through local bookstores. She can be reached at wood@whidbey.com.

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