Irish wild birds have acquired some very exotic tastes, writes Dick Warner.
It occurred to me, as I was idly watching my bird feeders, that Irish wild birds have acquired some very exotic tastes. Take peanuts for example. When did our finches, sparrows and tits first develop a taste for them? The peanut, groundnut or goober is a rather odd plant. It’s a member of the pea and bean family which forms a small shrub which produces little yellow flowers.
When these are pollinated they droop down towards the ground and produce a tendril, called a peg, which penetrates the soil and burrows down into it. The seeds then develop in a hard pod underground. Botanists call the process geocarpy.
Peanuts as we know them are the result of a hybrid between two wild species which was then improved by many centuries of selective breeding by farmers and gardeners. The original hybridisation, which was probably a one-off event, and all the early selective breeding, occurred in South America around 7,500 to 8,000 years ago. It was either in north western Argentina or south eastern Bolivia.
Peanuts, like peas and beans and other legumes, can fix atmospheric nitrogen using nodules on their roots. This means that growing them increases the fertility of the soil. The nuts are not true nuts like hazel nuts or walnuts but nutritionally they’re very similar, containing large amounts of protein and healthy oils along with important vitamins and minerals. These factors make them a very attractive crop and in historical times they rapidly spread all over the globe.
In 2014, over 42 million tons of shelled peanuts were produced worldwide. China and India are the top producers but the US and Sudan are also major growers. In some countries they have become a dietary staple, particularly in west Africa where they resemble an improved version of a local native plant.
In the US they were grown in colonial times as a garden plant. Then they were developed as a high-protein fodder for finishing beef cattle. Finally, in the 1930s the US Department of Agriculture embarked on a programme to develop them as a large scale crop for human consumption. Peanut oil is also used in cosmetics and, to a small extent, in industry.
They’re only grown commercially in tropical and sub-tropical areas because the plants, which are annuals, will not tolerate frost. They can be grown in Ireland and seedlings can be germinated from unshelled peanuts bought in shops. They’re unlikely to produce a crop outdoors except in the warmest years but they can be raised in a greenhouse, tunnel or cold frame.
It’s really quite extraordinary that a nut which grows underground and that was bred many millennia ago by Neolithic farmers in South America should now have become such a winter staple for Irish garden birds.
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