Terence Blacker: How to be welcome in sophisticated company

Sociable starlings, let down by their table manners, are snobbishly dismissed as avian chavs

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But Barnes was there first. He tapped into the national psyche with the brisk efficiency of a magpie raiding a blue tit's nesting box. Birdwatching is suddenly fashionable. There have been national campaigns to save the house sparrow. Street parties have broken out at the news that the nightjar numbers have been increasing. Bill Oddie has become an unexpected celebrity, with millions tuning into Springwatch.

It is time that everyone caught up with birds. Without a basic, passing knowledge of migratory patterns and mating displays, you will be as welcome in sophisticated company as a sparrowhawk in a house martin colony. The good news is that, with a bird-table in your garden, on your balcony or outside your window, you need take no exercise at all but can simply wait for the little chaps to come to you.

After you have put out a feast of peanuts, fat balls, crushed corn, sunflower and niger seeds, you will soon be receiving your first visitor. It will be a squirrel. These animals are not mentioned in polite birding circles. Not only are they not birds, and therefore by their nature less interesting, but their eating habits - first destroy the container, then get stuck into its contents - are generally thought to be against the communal spirit of the bird-table.

I have recently discovered that the best way to watch squirrels is with a catapult. A well-aimed shot at their hard little rumps - you will believe a squirrel can fly - is often enough to keep them away from your bird-table for five, sometimes 10 minutes.

You will get tits but you must never ever refer to them in this general, amateurish way. They are either blue tits (sweet-looking but common as muck), or great tits (unfeasibly aggressive and with no discernible personality), coal tits (hopelessly self-effacing and in desperate need of a self-esteem course), willow tits (or marsh tits - no one can tell the difference) or, the most adorable of the lot, long-tailed tits (small, over-excited things that move around in mad flocks).

Pretty soon, a great spotted woodpecker will make its ridiculous, showy entrance. Apparently fun-loving and zany, but with an unexpectedly cruel streak, this bird is the Jim Davidson of the air and even imitates Jim's famous "nick nick" catchphrase when alarmed (woodpeckers are always alarmed). It is one of the many injustices of the table-watching scene that these bruisers are generally welcomed while starlings, who are sociable and amusing but badly let down by their table-manners, are snobbishly dismissed as avian chavs.

Table-watching can also be a nocturnal activity as families of rats will congregate on and around your bird-table after dark. In spite of its generally negative image, rattus norvegicus can be a delightful creature, intelligent and resourceful, if slightly humourless. It does have a habit of breeding rather quickly so now and then you will need to put down blue, whole-grain poison but, until that sad moment, they can provide hours of pleasure.

By now, news of a new table in the area will have travelled around the bird kingdom and soon, if you are lucky, mobs of chaffinches and greenfinches will move in, elbowing aside the nervous little long-tailed tits. A niger-seed container will lure in goldfinches who will stare at the seed through the glass like a rather stupid person watching television, before pecking carefully at the small hole in the side.

This is when it starts getting interesting and you will need further guidance from a round-the-clock table-watcher. Before the mighty Miles Kington bird swoops back to his eyrie sending me scattering back to my own nest like a fledgling dunnock, there may well be more table-watching hints, including - you won't believe this - some hooligan behaviour from a chiff-chaff.

Miles Kington is away

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