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Feeding wild birds during winter months

A strange bird flew into our yard a few years ago. It was a Northern oriole, and it was strange because it was the middle of January. Orioles are not supposed to be this far north at that time of year.

The Audubon Society assumed it had lacked the energy to undertake a long flight when its relatives took off for warmer climes. Having been left behind, it was trying to make do as best it could and was presumably drawn to our yard by the sights and sounds around the feeders we keep filled during the winter.

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An oriole's diet, however, consists largely of fruits and insects that are hardly abundant during winter. So, on the Audubon Society's advice, we strung raisins together and hung them outside. We also made up a little concoction that included hamburger and soon noticed that our new visitor was eating.

We took to feeding birds the year after we moved here from a climate so benign that winter meant the occasional appearance of frost on the front lawn. Somehow watching the flurry of activity around the bird feeders made up for an inability to stroll casually around the yard all year long. It also felt good to provide the fuel so necessary to birds if they are to stay warm, or at least warm enough in winter.

I have since learned that, besides the entertainment value, there are some good practical gardening reasons for making a yard a haven for birds. Birds, for example, eat insects and weed seeds. In her just-released book, ''Feeding the Birds'' (Gardenway Publishing, Pownal, Vt. 05261), Jan Mahnken points out that starlings are one species that find gypsy moth larvae a delicacy, that a Northern oriole can consume 17 hairy caterpillars in a minute, and that ''a pair of flickers will polish off 5,000 ants as a first course.''

How, then, do we attract birds to our garden? Mrs. Mahnken (who by the way is a cat lover as well) suggests we provide:

* Water. We often forget that birds need to quench their thirst in cold as well as hot weather. Providing winter water is not so important when snow covers the ground. But when it is cold and the ground is bare, birds cannot get the moisture they need. A dish of warmish water placed outside once or twice a day will help considerably.

* White bread. Use this for starters. Birds have extremely keen eyesight. Studies show that birds are particularly quick to pick out white foods when flying past your garden. Once there, they quickly discover the other, more nutritious foods you have set out.

* A varied menu. Sunflower seeds, thistle, cracked corn, and ''wild bird'' mixes are the basics. But don't forget apple seeds or squash and melon seeds.

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Larger seeds should be put through a meat grinder so that small birds can easily get to the sweet ''nuts'' inside the husks. Shop around to get the best buys in birdseed. Prices can vary greatly. Generally, the better prices are available at stores dealing in livestock feeds, rather than ''bird stores'' at garden centers or supermarkets.

* Squirrel-proof feeders. Squirrels can climb a wooden pole as readily as any tree, but there's no way they can make it to the feeder on top of a metal pipe. Another option is to wrap a piece of sheet metal, a couple of feet wide, around the top of a wooden pole.

Remember, for his size the squirrel is one of this world's champion long-jumpers. So always locate your feeders 8 to 10 feet away from any tree or wooden fence. There are also some very effective squirrel-proof feeders on the market these days.

* A flat area for ground feeders. Not all birds like to eat from a suspended feeder. Many are almost exclusively ground feeders, such as the cardinal. So scatter some seed on the ground in an open area away from ground cover where a waiting predator could lurk.

Keeping a cat and feeding birds are not mutually exclusive. In the 10 years, our cat has caught only one bird to our knowledge, despite the hundreds that visit the yard every day during winter.

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