After the Barcode Tit, spot the Self-Steaming Finch

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY, if you remember, I started to tackle the winter bird-spotting problem.

What is the winter bird-spotting problem?

I'll tell you what the winter bird-spotting problem is.

The problem is that all the colourful and easily identifiable birds that made summer so joyful - and bird-spotting so easy - have vanished by the time winter comes, and been replaced by a series of drab lookalike birds, probably bused in from Lapland or somewhere. My solution to this was to reduce all winter birds to a mere 10 different species, in order to make them easier to name. I brought you five yesterday. Here are the other five now]

6. Self-Steaming Finch. This bird can easily be recognised on a winter's day as it is always totally stationary. It sits on a branch, or telephone wire, or roof, or even a bird-table, and just stays there. After a while, a faint but perceptible mist, tiny but real, begins to form above its head. The bird is steaming. It gives off body heat like any animal, and because it is not going anywhere, the heat turns into steam. It reminds one of those little birds one sometimes sees turning on a spit in the windows of Chinese restaurants in Soho's Gerrard Street; or is one thinking of those little birds that only the Italians have a taste for eating?

Well, in any case the self-steaming finch is pursuing an entirely different method of keeping warm from any other bird, except, perhaps, the penguin. Most birds think that they have to keep moving to keep warm. This bird thinks that moving is all very well, but it eats up energy, and staying still is a lot better. What would make its life complete would be if someone knitted it a tiny balaclava.

7. The Telegraph Reader. From time to time you see rather streamlined and interesting-looking birds sitting all by themselves on telegraph wires. They have a thoughtful air, as if they are saying to themselves, 'I wonder why it is that humans call them 'telegraph' poles, when they are actually telephone poles . . . Actually, I wonder if most of them even know what a telegraph is . . .'

But they are not thinking anything like that at all. What they are thinking is: 'For heaven's sake, where is everyone?' The reason they are thinking this is because they are migrating birds who have turned up too late for the great migration. Unaware of this, they have been sitting on the wires all winter waiting for the exodus to begin, and the awful truth is beginning to dawn on them that they missed the whole thing and that everyone else has been in Egypt for two months. Now they will have to stay in Britain the whole winter. No wonder they are looking thoughtful.

8. Mrs Blackbird. A male blackbird is unmistakable. He is black with an orange beak. No other bird can claim this. But Mrs Blackbird is different. She is brown and nondescript and looks like many another bird, such as a thrush, a linnet, a nightingale, a cuckoo and so on. Make no attempt to distinguish between them. They are all henceforth female blackbirds.

9. The Country Magazine Cover Bird. At this time of year all country magazines like to put a proud gamebird on the front to look festive. They have probably just slipped round to the nearest butcher and bought a dead one to take a snap of, and if your idea of a festive cover is a snap of a dead bird, then why not? But these birds are not wholly confined to glossy prints - in real life they also occasionally wander, live, into your garden, relieved to get away from the traffic. You will know it has happened because you will hear one of your family shriek: 'Oh, look, in the garden - it's a pheasant, no a grouse, or do I mean a ptarmigan or capercailzie, if that is how it is pronounced . . .' By the time anyone else has come to have a look the country magazine cover bird will have vanished again. (It is also widely found on dinner plates, staring up at you unwinkingly and somewhat unnervingly as you eat your way through the main course.)

10. The Bird-Table Bird. This bird is found only on bird-tables. Sometimes it eats, but mostly it just sits and puffs itself up, fluffing out its feathers. It fluffs up its feathers not so much to keep warm as to look bigger. It always fails. What it doesn't realise is that every other bird fluffs itself up in winter as well, so that all birds become bigger in wintertime. And thus all stay relatively the same size.

Well, that's it. Your winter bird-spotting troubles are over]

There is sometimes thought to be an 11th kind of bird, one that flies overhead so high that it must have its own oxygen supply and be heading to New York as the 12.15 flight out of Heathrow, but it is safe to treat this as one of the other 10 that just happens to be out of focus. Good spotting]

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