Heated bird baths do double-duty; they provide the necessary water for overwintering birds and they bring the birds near enough for people to enjoy their antics.

Noon. The sun is shining, and according to the RoundTable website, it is 28 degrees. The pond that has formed from the snow and rain in my neighbor’s yard to the north is frozen. The only open water around is my small heated birdbath not too far from our screened porch, within easy viewing of the kitchen where I am enjoying a lunchtime cup of coffee. All’s quiet, not a bird in sight. I’m longing to see birds, which seem to have deserted my yard for those offering seed.

All of a sudden, a cloud of birds erupts at the birdbath. First come the English sparrows. They dive down from their protected resting perches in the evergreen arbor vitae. They splash in the birdbath like little kids. They are always first, but I know if the sparrows are there, others will soon arrive. And, arrive they do. First the juncos, although they tend to wait on the ground until there are fewer sparrows on the rim or in the “pool.” Next, the cardinal pair arrive, though not together. A male goldfinch sporting a surprisingly decorative white tail feather takes his turn, then a male house finch is thirsty, too. The goldfinch and house finch don’t bathe, just drink. A red-breasted nuthatch takes delicate sips after snacking on bugs hiding in the bark of the honeysuckle. The back yard has become a bird-town riot. I am toasty warm and reveling at the sight.

During the winter, when ponds are frozen, birds get their water from berries and insects. Cedar waxwing flocks decimate the berries on the hawthorn trees and move on to the next feast. Woodpeckers and nuthatches and chickadees probe tree bark for overwintering insects. But, heated bird baths do double-duty; they provide the necessary water for our overwintering birds and they bring the birds near enough for you to enjoy their antics. You can begin to recognize individual birds, particularly male sparrows whose bibs vary from the very black (presumably dominant males) to a speckled design; like snowflakes, no two are alike.

You can help birds through the winter by providing them shelter and water even if you don’t provide a feeder. For shelter, you can prop your “live” Christmas tree in your yard or create an artificial fence by collecting trees from your neighbors. And you can provide water in a heated birdbath. The heater will have safety features that cycle off when the daytime temperatures rise above freezing or when the water dries up. To help the birds, keep a pair of boots and a watering can handy so you can keep the birdbath filled. The birds will anticipate the location and the supply, and you can appreciate the birds all year round.

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.