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Welcoming The World Of Wings

The wind is blowing hard outside. Has been all day. But at least the rain has stopped, so I leave the house to clear ice off the front porch and deck. Chinook winds billowing out of the Chugach Mountains have brought 40-degree warmth to Anchorage's Hillside, and the softened ice is easy to chop.

It's wet and sloppy, a taste of breakup in winter. The driveway is slush, and water cascades off the roof in chilling torrents, forcing me to add rain gear - despite the blue skies - as I chop and shovel. But I don't mind. Right now I'd rather have this than more snow. There's already too much snow piled in our yard.

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My neighbors, the birds, don't seem to mind this latest meltdown either. They're busily foraging for food in the backyard, where melting snow has revealed the black remains of what might be several hundred thousand sunflower shells, the result of my bird-feeding passion.

Each morning, before refilling my bird feeders (which include a baking pan and rail tops, as well as more conventional tubes, suet holders, and sheltered feeders), I sweep shell husks from our middle and upper decks onto the ground below. Since September, I've swept the remains of three 50-pound-bags' worth. Through the course of the winter, the shells have become embedded in the snow, rather like volcanic ash deposits within sedimentary rock sequences. Several distinct layers of black are visible where I've shoveled a path through the snowpack, reflecting this year's snowstorms, thaws, and dry spells.

The appearance of large and growing shell piles has attracted a large flock of common redpolls on this warm and windy Sunday. Tiny songbirds that love to forage on the ground, they are sparrowlike in appearance, but have distinctive black chin spots and red splotches on their heads. The redpolls didn't appear at my feeders until early December - chickadees and nuthatches have been visiting since early fall, pine grosbeaks since mid-October - but their numbers have steadily increased. For the past month and a half, they've been the predominant species.

I didn't bother refilling my feeders this morning because of the high winds and heavy rain, but the redpolls came anyway, lured by this unusual ground feast. Shortly before noon I counted nearly 100 of them, a season high.

Now, done with my ice chopping, I walk to the back where redpolls have been joined by a handful of grosbeaks, robin-sized birds that are voracious sunflower-seed eaters. Thirty birds hop around the snow, prospecting for seeds. There must be enough uncracked shells among the husks to make it worth picking through the debris.

Standing there, watching them hop and peck and eat, I chuckle at the birds. And at me. It's been several winters since I set out my first feeder, an old, slightly bent baking pan; several winters since three chickadees flashed in for seeds and changed my life. The chickadees - and later the nuthatches, grosbeaks, redpolls, juncos, and pine siskins - touched my heart. Filled with unexpected delight, I wondered how long it would take for that exhilaration to fade.

It hasn't. The birds remain a joyful part of my life. They connect me with the world outside my walls and windows, even when it seems too cold, or rainy, or stormy, to leave the house. They sing to me, in cheerful chirps and whistles that I'd barely noticed until this past year. And their songs invariably lift my spirits.

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Sometimes, while standing on my upstairs deck or shoveling the driveway - or even chopping ice in chinook winds - I whistle back to the birds. It's my way of welcoming them. And saying thanks.

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