This winter's special offer: the Barcode Tit and friends

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The Independent Online
BECAUSE everything in nature seems to die off in the winter - if it doesn't hibernate or go south to Egypt for the season - it is often assumed that it's a waste of time to try to do any bird-spotting at this time of year.

Absolute rubbish] There are simply hundreds of bird species out there in your garden, just waiting to be identified. The fact that they are all indistinguishable from each other only makes it more of a challenge]

But to make things easier for the newcomer to winter-time bird spotting, I have recategorised all known birds into just 10 different species, and I will be bringing you the full list today and tomorrow.

This means that every bird you see in your garden during the next two months is guaranteed to fit into one of the categories, and that means you no longer have to rummage around in your bird book, trying to choose between dozens of near-identical birds, and saying to yourself doubtfully: 'Well, I suppose it could be a young female fieldfare if the the colour was a little lighter and it were six inches longer and turned round a bit so I could see its profile better . . .'

Don't you hate bird-spotting like that? Don't you wish the whole process was simpler and nicer? Of course you do] Here we go, then, with the first five of the 10 birds you will see in your garden this winter]

1. The Land Gull. Ornithologists persist in referring to a bird called the 'sea gull', although they know perfectly well that hardly a single gull has been spotted at the seaside in the past 10 years. These nasty, white, vicious creatures have been lured inland by the presence of ever larger sewage farms, refuse dumps and landfill sites, and instead of nobly swimming the waves in search of fish, they now scrabble among the rubbish in search of old kipper bones.

With persistence and patience, they can still be trained to follow behind ploughs and tractors in the traditional picturesque fashion, but most modern farmers do not have the time to devote to the training sessions involved, especially as land gulls now have such bad breath. It used to be said that if gulls came to your garden, it meant there was a storm at sea. Their apperance now means that the local city dump is closed for the morning.

2. The Barcode Tit. Even experts find it difficult to tell one tit from another, owing not only to their similarity, but also to their infuriating habits of hanging upside down, flying faster than the speed of sight, etc.

It is now slowly being realised that the black and white lines on their tails form different bar codes according to the type of tit, and that if you can get close enough, you can pass your electronic barcode reader over it and obtain an instant readout. If your barcode reader doesn't work, you can either ring a bell and wait hours for the supervisor to come, or turn to the girl at the next till and shout: 'Rita] What kind of a bleeding tit is this and is there a special offer on it this week?'

3. The Ravenous Bird. This is a small brown bird whose only habit is to come and tap your window furiously, asking for food. That's all it does. You can put food out, and watch all the other birds gobble it up, but you will never see the ravenous bird help itself. Five minutes later it will be banging on the window again. Experts are divided into those who think it is very stupid and those who think it enjoys being hungry. Personally, I think it probably just likes tapping windows and seeing householders run about with seeds.

4. The Christmas Card Bird. This is a cross between a robin and a fashion model. It sits around photogenically on logs, wheelbarrows, sundials, spades, etc, trying to catch the last rays of wintry sunshine and look desperately glamorous. Do not attempt to feed it. It's on one of those trendy new diets and is trying to starve to death. It is kept going through the winter by the warmth of its ego.

5. The Manic Depressive Garden Bird. Sometimes you see little birds shooting across your garden at about 200 mph, which seems an excessive speed just for a local trip. You also see little birds crouching in trees for hours on end, gloomily staring into space through half-closed eyelids. Believe it or not, they are the same bird. They're just having a bit of a mood swing.

It is as if they start off the day on a high, and then suddenly remember having heard David Attenborough say, on one of those interminable afternoon repeats: 'It seems amazing that even a small bird has to consume more than five times its body weight every day just to survive]' and have been so depressed by the thought that they sink into an ineffable Weltschmerz.

The other five birds appear tomorrow - don't miss them]

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