The birds knew before the weatherman did.

They felt the blizzard of '79 coming 12 hours ahead of time, when the radio still said two to four inches.

We have some snooty birds in our neighborhood. For a long time we thought we'd have to pay them to use our humble feeder.

On Sunday, they let their feathers down.

They arrived at dawn. Swarms of song sparrows camped out in the cherry tree. The pigeons dropped down from their filthy roost in the eaves. The chickadees and the titmice raced in and out, carting off sunflowers. The elegant cardinals, mom and fire-red pop, chased the juncoes away and were chased off, in turn, by the jays. Then a yellow-shafted flicker, which never eats bird seed, came along and shoved off the jays, and then came a squirrel, and behind it, a cat.

As the barometer plunged we started watching for wolves and panthers.

None showed. By dusk, when the snow had begun and already was drifting to seed-covering depths, the birds were valiantly scratching away at the picnic tabletop where we had spread millet and whole sunflower.

It is unknown how long they stayed. We gave up and watched American Graffiti on television, then tucked ourselves into warm beds and dozed off in the utter silence that only deep snow fosters.

At dawn, they were there again. Maybe they never left. I counted 75 sparrows, all clustered around a tiny pie tin I had nailed to the window sill. It was in the lee of the storm and was the only place left where there was any exposed food, and it was running out. The tabletop was lost under the snow.

"Got to feed those birds," said my 12-year-old, Laura.

We opened the back door and found snow halfway up the storm door. Katie the dog jumped out when we opened it a crack.

She took the first step at a leap, the second at a bound, and after the third she disappeared, swallowed up in snow.

"She's gone," said Laura, who leaped in after her and disappeared, too.

We retrieved dog and child, then wallowed to the tabletop, cleared it off and scattered more bird seed.

Within 10 minutes the yard, from the magnolia to the cherry tree to the garage roof to the fence, was littered with whirling, flapping, chirping, fluttering bird bodies.

They weren't being snooty any more.

Having fed our feathered friends, we pondered other ways to serve in this day of crisis.

The radio spouted pleas by the dozens. Most were for nurses, which Frances used to be before she went back to graduate school.

"I've got it," she said. "We'll hike downtown to Doctors (Hospital, where she once worked). I'll be a nurse and Laura can be my assistant."

"What about me?" I wondered.

"You," said Frances, "can be chief of surgery."

We are old hands at hiking. We filled our day packs with spare clothes and emergency supplies and set off for the six-mile trek. I decided to be an editor at The Post, so I didn't pack my scalpel.

The snow slowed shortly after we left and at about 10 o'clock the wind switched hard north. We could see clearing sky in the west as we trudged down Whittier Street NW, which had not seen the first hint of the plow's blade. The Metro tracks were lost under pure driven snow.

Frances broke trial through soft, thigh-high snow. As we moved on to the main drags conditions improved. Blair Road was passable but barren of cars. Kansas Avenue hadn't seen the plow, but Missouri Avenue had traffic. We cheered when a bunch of kids in a Jeep roared by, sliding and joy riding, whooping it up.

We found a new dog -- a huge French sheepdog that looked like a refugee from the Muppets, which merrily bumped us along past Georgia Avenue.

Military and 16th Street was Panic City. Buses backed up behind stalled cars. Generous people filed out of apartment buildings, shouldering shovels. There was an air of carnival.

I've hiked in the Blue Ridge and along the Appalachian Trial; on Prince Edward Island and through the Everglades; I've hiked the marshes of the Eastern Shore, the seashores of the North Carolina Outer Banks.

But one hike I'll never forget is a walk in Washington after the great blizzard of '79.