This is the time of year island residents are asked about most: “What do you in the winter?” I think the question really is, “What do you do to survive the small town quiet when you can’t just jump in your car (or boat) and go to the high school basketball game, movie, bowling or out to dinner?”

Winter survival techniques are as individual as the people who live on our islands. It’s all about keeping ourselves as busy and entertained as we want to be.

Town employees and selectmen are busy getting the annual report and warrant together for March town meetin. They don’t share the “time off” mode of fishermen whose traps and boats are out of the water. Cory Alley and Blair Colby are at their busiest keeping streets plowed and sanded on Islesford and Great Cranberry.

January is my vacation month. I have a sense of free time I don’t get any other time of year. I have plenty of work to do to design and make jewelry, but for one month I’m in no hurry to hit the studio.

This year I have more “free” time than I planned on and I am struggling a bit with it. My mother, 88 years old, passed away quietly in her sleep in early December. For the last seven of those years she was in assisted living at Birch Bay Village in Bar Harbor. I went to see her once or twice a week to have lunch, read to her, talk about life and do what little shopping she needed.

In her last two years she was quite physically limited. I tried to bring the outside world into her little apartment with its big view of Frenchman’s Bay. In the winter, we could watch snow squalls moving across the water before the flakes reached her windows. When my brother suggested one of those small suction cup bird feeders for Mom’s window, I thought it was a silly idea. She lived on the second floor and I didn’t think the birds would find it. He bought one anyway and put it up for her.

I was right for about three months. Then the birds came: chickadees, juncoes, chipping sparrows and goldfinches. On the rare “rough” days when we couldn’t provide the emotional support we sought from each other, the birds were there to give us a pick-me-up.

Now, I have no need to leave the island so often, which is a blessing in the winter but it feels very strange. I know there are all kinds of things I could do. I have a list in my head but as yet I have little interest or energy for any of them.

I know my usual winter survival techniques will help me get through this phase. If all I planned to do was read books in January, then I am right on track. I make my bed every day so when I walk by our bedroom I have proof I’ve done something other than reading. I use Coppertone sunscreen as my daytime moisturizer because the smell reminds me of a hot day at the beach. Most importantly, I keep my bird feeders full so I will be rewarded with visits from cardinals, juncoes, white-throated sparrows, gold finches, nuthatches and chickadees. Their chatty activity and resilience brightens my day every time I see them.

I can’t imagine living anywhere other than Little Cranberry Island, but if there were no birds here, I would have to rethink that. I rely on seeing and hearing them, especially in winter, and on the stories I hear from others about them.

Joy Sprague, our postmaster, puts out a variety of food for the birds. There are all kinds of bushes and small trees just outside her window. It’s a perfect spot. She gets all of the island regulars and more. Recently she had a young Baltimore Oriole that stayed into January, along with a yellow bellied sapsucker.

“I got a picture of the two of them on my feeder at the same time!” she told me with a bright smile. In a phone call she told me of looking out to check on a little bird that had just hit her window. Suddenly, a sharp-shinned hawk chasing the smaller bird made his own abrupt stop against the window, right next to Joy’s head. “He had a 2-foot wingspan!” Everyone survived that encounter.

Some of my favorite bird stories come from lobstermen. In the fall, lone migrating birds sometimes make life-saving stops to rest on the boats out at sea. It’s one of the questions I ask Bruce when he comes in from fishing: “Any birds to tell about today?”

On Dec. 29 I heard Joey Wedge call on the VHF radio from his boat, the Austin Marie, “Barbara Ann”¦ you got your set on, Bruce?” My ears perked up from the next room. I listened as he described how one of his chickens had gone missing in the first big snowstorm. His wife had just called to tell him she had found it buried in a snow bank, still alive.

I contacted Marie and she e-mailed me the details:

“It was the morning after our first snowstorm, of this already too long winter. I went to the coop and noticed that Polly, one of our three Brahma hens, was missing. Joey and I searched everywhere and we were unable to find her. It was a difficult search because there was around 10-12 inches of snow covering the ground. We did notice the small entrance door was unlatched. We sadly assumed that an animal had gotten her.

“Over two weeks later I was out in the yard and thought I heard something by the outside coop. I walked over and noticed a few feathers sticking out of the snow. As I got closer I noticed the feathers were moving, I ran over and out of the snow came Polly, my sweet little miracle chicken. She managed to create a snow cave and had survived the freezing cold temperatures, storm after storm. Fortunately for Polly, her snow cave was right on top of the discarded pile of pine shavings and food that were sitting outside the pen.

“It breaks my heart that she was outside alone in that horrible weather. Now she is back in the coop with her sisters and doing amazing.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about: A great bird story about winter survival, introduced by a lobster fisherman. It’s enough to make me smile when I walk past a snow bank to refill my feeders.

Barbara Fernald makes jewelry and writes on Little Cranberry Island (Islesford).