The woolly bears can't seem to make up their minds about this winter. In my neighborhood, these furry caterpillars have been mostly brown, with thin black stripes at both ends. According to weather lore, that should predict a mild winter. The wider the black stripes, the harder the winter. And last year I did see a lot of all-black ones.

A friend who lives about 10 miles south of me says she's seen a high percentage of all-black ones this year, but I've only seen a few. In fact, I've only seen a small number of woolly bears, even though I live way out in the country. That in itself predicts a mild winter, but I did see a few before frost, and that's said to foretell a severe winter.

So the woolly bears aren't much help this year in predicting winter's woes. They seem to be too busy contradicting themselves for us to put much stock in what they're saying. Maybe the last few winters have left them as confused as the arest of us.

Butthe weather forecasters aren't all that much help, either. Last winter, as a colossal snowstorm fell on New Jersey, they kept insisting it was just flurries. And they didn't change their forecasts until huge drifts covered the roadways.

Heavy crops of nuts, acorns and pine cones are said to be a sure sign of a hard winter. So is unusually frenzied gathering activity among animals. Last year our acrons were mammoth, the biggest I've ever seen. This year's are smaller, but the squirrels are just as busy gathering them.

The dogwood berries were aboundant this year, and that's another sign of a cold winter. I haven't noticed carrots growing deeper, though, or onions adding more layers, or thicker skins on apples -- and all three are considered important signs for a severe season.

And a heavy winter is said to follow an exceptionally hot summer, but this past one wasn't exceptional. Many weather watchers say a hard winter is always preceded by a fall full of rolling thunder. In our part of the country,there was little of that this autumn.

Blackberry blossoms in summer are used to predict the amount of snow that will fall in winter. The summer before this past one the blackberry blooms were heavy and the scent was rich enough to make a picker dizzy. They even looked like snow. And last winter was a record year for snow.

But this summer, at least where I live, the black-berry blossoms weren't mind-boggling. They weren't sparse enough to suggest keeping skis and mukluks in the attic this winter, but they didn't look like blizzard blossoms, either. A friend who summered in New Hampshire said blackberry blossoms were lush and fragrant there and abundant enough to predict some heavy snows.

In our locale, the weather indicators don't point to an unusually hard or long winter. There are enough positive signs, from dogwood berries to worms crawling into buildings, to say it won't be easy, but I predict it will be easier than last year, and with less snow. And the various factions among the woolly bears lead me to believe that severely cold days will alternate with unseasonably warm ones, which could explain the apparent confusion. I think the winter will be warm and cold, but not memorable for either.

but weather signs differ widely in different locations, so everyone who watches has to become acquainted with the signs and with what's normal and exceptional.

The signs to look for are heavy wild crops, intense gatherings, thick skins on fruits and vegetables and leaves dropping from thetrees before turning colors. Thick furs on animals, even household pets, predict a hard winter -- so do crows gathering together and birds huddling on the ground. And woolly bears.