Last Saturday was the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Paper Session (a boring term for annual gathering). One of the presentations was from John and Lisa Loegering about attempts to produce Nyjer in North America.

Let’s get some basics down about this seed first, on the off chance that someone reading this doesn’t know about the tiny seed for finches. Above is a picture of Nyjer also known as Niger and Thistle. Most of what you purchase for goldfinches at your local feed store comes from Singapore, Burma (I remember seeing that location frequently when I got in 50# bags at the bird store I managed), Ethiopia, and Myanmar. This is not a seed grown in North America. It is in no way related to the noxious weed thistle. It was originally called Niger but frequently got mispronounced as a racial slur. So many retailers referred to it as thistle. Since some got confused that it might be seeds of the noxious weed thistle, some cities tried to ban its sale. The Wild Bird Feeding Industry has pushed for the name to be changed to a phonetic spelling: Nyjer.

Confused yet? Basically at bird stores: Nyjer = Niger = Thistle, it is all the same seed. It’s that tiny seed you put out for finches, siskins and redpolls and it’s not grown in North America–one of the reasons it’s one of the more expensive seeds.

According to the Loegerings, attempts have been made to grow a type of Nyjer in North America. A Niger Growers Group was even formed. By 2002, a plant had been developed and seeds were produced…and no bird would touch it. The group contacted the Loegerings and asked them to figure out why birds wouldn’t eat the seeds. They set up 15 different feeding stations with the North American Nyjer in one feeder and Ethiopian Nyjer in the second. They measured the amount of seed put in the feeder, the amount the birds ate, the type of birds and the flock composition. The most common birds coming to the feeding stations were goldfinches and redpolls. Sure enough, if the birds had their choice, they ate the Ethiopian Nyjer more than the North American Nyjer.

Loegering wondered what was different. One of the first things that came to mind was that Ethiopian Nyjer is supposed to be heat treated to prevent it from germinating in North American soil (we all know how successful that is…not). So he got the directions for the exact process and heat treated the North American Nyjer and restarted the experiment. This time, the finches ate both types of Nyjer at the same rate. Now why would they prefer the heat treated seed? Does the heat remove the moisture to make the shell easier to crack? Does it make for a better tasting seed? Does it look different in the UV color spectrum? We don’t know.

Now, this does not mean you will be finding locally grown Nyjer anytime soon. The Nyjer Growers Group has since disbanded. Part of the reason is that there is no farm equipment available to separate the tiny seeds from the chaff. Nyjer is all hand harvested overseas, think about that when you are pouring it into your feeder–that is a hand harvested seed. Kind of makes you wonder about the age of the harvesters and if they are paid a fair wage for harvesting that bird seed. Between that and tariffs, you can understand why it’s an expensive feed to put out. The other reason was that when corn prices went crazy on all the ethanol speculation, many farmers gave up trying to grow bird food like Nyjer or sunflower (it’s costly since you have to protect from the very creatures it is being grown for) in favor of growing corn. They also gave up some of their CRP land, so birds got a raw deal from ethanol…no bird can live in a corn field.

And now a few words from one of my site’s sponsors:

Hey! While we’re talking Nyjer and finches, you might need one and some are available at the Birdchick’s OpenSky Store. One that is pictured quite a bit in my blog and used by thousands of finches is the Finch Flocker (a 36″ feeder). There’s also the Droll Yankee Clever Clean Series for finches too.

Remember that 20% of the profits of my store are donated to the ABA’s kids programs.

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Niger Thistle (Nyjer Seed) is the most popular bird seed for goldfinches and pine siskins. This article covers what birds particularly like Niger Thistle, the seeds history and the best ways to feed niger seed.

Written by Chris Uhtoff of the Northwest Nature Shop

The popular finch seed Niger ( Guizotia abyssinica ) is native to the highlands of Ethiopia. Niger is in the composite (sunflower) family and is quite closely related to the popular garden plants Cosmos (genus Coreopsis). It has yellow Cosmos-like flowers and grows up to 6 feet tall. The seeds contain up to 40% oil and in Ethiopia, India and Myanmar (Burma) it is an important oilseed crop. Ethiopian immigrants possibly introduced the seed to India around 3000 B.C along with other important food plants such as millet. Niger supplies 50% of the vegetable oil used in Ethiopia and 3% in India. It is also heated and made into a paste and eaten directly. The meal left after oil extraction is used as a livestock food. It is a useful crop in the tropics because it is relatively pest free and can be grown in clay and waterlogged soils.

In North America and Europe it is used primarily as a bird food. Initially it was given the unfortunate name of Niger Thistle perhaps due to the thin seeds or its desirability to Goldfinches and Siskins who also love thistle. However efforts have been made by the bird feeding industry to change the name to Nyjer Seed to distance it from the thistle name and emphasize the correct pronunciation. However that term isn’t widely used. It’s one of the more expensive seeds due to the transport costs from tropical regions and because it is heat sterilized to kill weed seeds such as Dodder that is present in many Niger seed harvests. The heat sterilization also stops the germination of the Niger plant but it is unlikely grow and reproduce in temperate regions anyway.

Just like oil sunflower the high oil content of Niger makes it an energy packed food that is highly desirable for any bird adapted to eating small seeds. In North America the members of the Carduelis genus – the Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Goldfinches, fit this bill so to speak. House Finches, Purple Finches and Juncos also eat it but for most people the Carduelis finches will be the only regular visitors to a Niger feeder.


Common Redpoll

The common and Hoary Redpoll range in Canada, Alaska and and northern US states. The redpolls feed on seeds of birch and willow and were called by the common name of birch siskins. Along with the Pine siskins an irruption can occur where redpolls are found far away from their normal range. Irruptions occur in many bird species, which feed on an irregular food source. Occasionally a tree will produce a great abundance of seeds in what is called a mast year. This irregularity is necessary for the trees because if they produced the same amount seeds regularly seed eaters could predict this and eat too high of a percentage of the seeds. Flocks of Redpolls and Siskins therefore need to travel widely in search of mast trees and in particularly heavy mast years their population can greatly increase, or they travel much farther than usual.

Pine Siskin

Flocks of Pine Siskins are found in open conifer forests, interestingly enough not so much in pine ecosystems. Siskins, like the Redpolls and other cold weather birds have the ability to store large amounts of food in their esophagus, which they can slowly digest over a cold winter night.

Three species of Goldfinches occur in the US. Lawrence goldfinches are the most localized occurring in Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California. Lesser goldfinches are a western bird, southward of Oregon and east to Texas.

American goldfinches occur throughout the US and southern Canada. American Goldfinches were often called wild canaries because of the bright plumage of breeding males. Their less colorful winter coats features a dense layer of down feathers to add warmth to allow them to survive northern winters. The primary food of Goldfinches is the seeds of the composite (sunflower) family. Goldfinches have their young in late summer when the seeds of these plants are most abundant. Instead of the typical insect diet goldfinches feed their young a seed mash.

When choosing a Niger feeder, as with any bird feeder, look for ease of filling, and cleaning. Niger seed will be eaten from most types of feeders but since it is an expensive seed it is best offered in a separate feeder in which birds cannot easily kick it out of. Feeders with port type openings work well such as the classic droll Yankee Tube Feeder or Schrodt Designs Lantern Feeder. Specialized Niger feeders with a small opening or some type of mesh are useful because the finches are well adapted to feed from this type of feeder and it lessens the chance a bird not particularly interested in this seed will come and throw out the Niger seed. The finches are perfectly capable of feeding upside down hanging from Thistle Sacks or mesh feeders but studies have shown that they prefer to feed right side up. Good ventilation is important with Niger seed because if the seed stays wet it can spoil quickly, that is why we tend to prefer the mesh style feeders.

Niger Thistle Sacks are some of the most popular with our customers because they are inexpensive, lightweight and can feed the most birds at the same time. When choosing a sack it is important to have a weave that is not too loose or too tight. The very inexpensive sacks have a very loose weave, which allows seed to spill out with every movement of the feeder wasting seed. However birds do prefer a looser weave, most birds are kind of lazy or you could say efficient, in that they prefer to eat with the minimum amount of effort. However the very loose weaves will spill more seed in the first week than you will ever have saved in the initial investment and the birds seem happy with tighter woven sacks if they are the only choice. We have had good experience with the Black Socks from Songbird Essentials. The black blends in well to the yard and the weave is very acceptable to the birds. Some of the best made socks are from Wildlife accessories such as their Classic thistle sack and the Medium thistle sack. The nylon is thicker on these sacks and they last a lot longer then other brands. However we recommend washing the classic sack at least once to loosen the weave up a bit because it can be a bit tight.The problem with thistle sacks is there limited life span and their exposure to the elements.

Lately there have been a lot of great stainless steel mesh feeders introduced from manufacturers such as Birds Choice and Aspects. Aspects’ model is virtually indestructible and features a plastic rim on the top of the mesh which keeps the shape of the mesh and makes it very easy to open and fill. The Steel Pagoda feeder from Havegard is very popular, its roof offers some protection from the elements and its huge capacity is great if you have a lot of birds and cannot fill your feeders fast enough.

Once the Finches find the feeder they can be quite brave in where they feed and seem to ignore any disturbance. For this reason these feeders are a great choice for use as a window feeder.

You can hang most Niger feeders easily from an eave near a window or with a hook attached to the house. This system is often easier to fill and sturdier than feeders attached directly to the window. However it is hard to beat the excitement and close up views of a feeder attached directly to the window. One of our favorite feeders for this purpose is the Perky Pet window feeder because it is easy to fill and you can use either the port-style openings or the special Niger feeding opening that is included.

Initially it is best to start with a small amount of seed in the feeder until the birds find it and start eating it regularly so that you do not waste to much seed exchanging old seed for fresh.

A useful accessory for Niger feeders is some kind of weather protection. Erva Manufacturing makes a rainproof and nearly indestructible metal rain guard and Aspects makes the attractive Weather Dome both are very attractive and functional, or you can make your own out of painted wood or use a plastic plate. If birds are not finding the feeder try moving it into another part of the yard either near other feeders or near a natural food source. As with other birds with primarily a seed diet, water is necessary for complete digestion so offering water greatly increases the desirability of your feeding station.

A frequent question we get asked is how to decrease the uneaten seeds that accumulate under the feeder. This often is the result of the eating habits of the finches themselves. These birds pick out so many seeds so quickly that they drop a good portion accidentally. Even in the feeders with only one small opening per feeding station like the tube feeders from Droll Yankee there are still plenty of uneaten seeds underneath the feeder. While it is tempting to try and refill the feeder with this seed there is a great risk of contamination from bird waste and we cannot recommend that practice. If you use a tube feeder you can try to add an attachable seed tray to catch the thrown out seed. This helps in most cases, but will probably not eliminate the problem completely. Recently we have discovered the Bird Seed Hoop seed catcher which has been helpful for many people. The juncos are happy to feed from this large tray.

For many people Niger feeders are their favorite feeder. The large active flocks are a wonderful presence in the yard and the Goldfinches in breeding plumage are one of the most stunning sights in nature. We hope you found something interesting and informative in this article, and enjoy feeding these birds as much as we have. Good luck and good birding!

The Ultimate Guide to Using Niger Seeds as Bird Food

Why Use Niger Seeds as Bird Food?

Niger seeds are a firm favourite for wild birds, but what do we actually know about this small and exotic seed? If you’re new to this type of premium bird food, we’ve put together the ultimate guide to this seed and look at why you should start using niger bird food in your garden. Read on to learn more

Niger or nyjer – What’s the Difference?

To be honest, no one has really agreed on what the correct term is. Niger, nijer, nyjer or thistle seed are the main variations, but it doesn’t really matter which one you use. For the sake of continuity, we will be using niger in this guide.

Where do niger seeds come from?

The niger plant picture below shows the plant that the niger seed grows into, and where the seeds are harvested from.

Niger seed actually comes from the Ethiopian highlands. It’s also located in other parts of Africa such as Malawi. Commercially, it is produced in Nigeria, Ethiopia, also stretching all the way to southeast Asia and India.

What are niger seeds?

This tiny, fine seed is black in colour but usually sprouts into a yellow coloured flower. Guizotia abyssinica is the scientific name and it is often mistaken for a thistle, which it isn’t. The confusion might stem from the fact that finches are particularly fond of both thistle seed and niger seed.

Niger Seed

Before it’s exported, the seed has to be treated and sterilised with high temperatures to prevent germination and the sprouting of any flowers in your garden, which may harm other native plants.

Other than bird feed, niger seed can be used for human consumption. You won’t be using it in the same way as our feathered friends do though. You will find the oil and the seed in recipes for curries, chutneys and other foods. Niger seed also offers plenty of medical uses.

Niger seed nutrition

Niger Seed Nutrition (per 100g)
Calories 515
Fat 39g
Sodium 0mg
Potassium 0mg
Sugar 0g
Fiber 11g
Protein 24g
Vitamin A 0%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 300%
Iron 57%

How to use niger seed for birds

Because niger seed is rich in oil and high in nutrition, it makes it an outstanding food for garden birds all year round. It’s even better used as winter bird food as it will give garden birds an extra calorie hit that will help them store fat to keep them warm. The high protein count will help with the regeneration of feathers when moulting throughout the year.

Which birds eat niger seed?

Smaller seed-eating birds like Finches and Sparrows have developed into experts at eating tiny seeds such as niger. These species have smaller pointed and sharp beaks, ideal for cracking open the shells of the niger seed.

These smaller birds are acrobatic when they feed from a niger seed feeder, often seen feeding from them upside down. This type of conditioning is great practice for the wild, where they will have to use these acrobatic skills to feed on their own.

Be wary though, this will also encourage big bully birds like pigeons who will scour the floor for any niger seed that has fallen. Using a seed tray attached to the bottom of the feeder will prevent this loss to the floor and deter the bigger birds hoping to steal some seed.

  • These are some the types of birds that eat niger seed that you’ll be able to attract to your garden:
  • Sparrows

  • Siskins

  • Finches

  • Redpolls

  • Pigeons

  • Doves

Shop premium bird food in our store

Along with niger seed, we also stock a wide range of high-quality and affordable bird food products in our online store. Regardless of whether you want to buy bulk bird food, or you’re looking to test the waters with a small amount, our collection has a wide range of options to keep your garden birds happy!

What is Nyjer Seed, and Should I Be Using It?

Another thing to consider, is the mess nyjer seeds can make. Whilst any stray seeds won’t sprout because of the sterilisation, there is the problem of them creating a bit of a mess. Therefore, it’s probably wise to invest in a feeder tray that will catch any debris as well as being a good method of attracting the larger seed-eaters.

Just one more thing to think about, is if you want a bag of nyjer seed to stretch a bit further, you could always try mixing it in with your regular wild bird seed.

Nyjer Seed Advice

  • Nyjer seed can get mouldy, and can be really bad for the birds, even fatal. So be sure to change the feed every 3-4 weeks.
  • We’d also recommend cleaning your feeders every time you do, just to further prevent any mould or bacteria growth
  • Nyjer can typically last up to 2 months, but shortly it will go dry. When it has, birds are less likely to eat it. Remember, it’s an oily seed, so is naturally quite moist.

Well, that’s it! I hope I’ve been able to give a bit of information on nyjer seed, and why it’s a good idea to add it to your selection of wild bird seed! Happy birdwatching!

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When finches are searching for food, a finch feeder chock-full of Nyjer seed is a welcome sight. Though a popular choice, many birders don’t realize some of the fascinating facts behind this tiny, needle-shaped, black oily seed.

1. Nyjer seed attract finches

If you’d like to add another feeder to your yard, a tube feeder filled with Nyjer seed will specifically attract finches, such as American Goldfinches, House Finches and Purple Finches, but Indigo Buntings, Red Polls and Pine Siskins love it too – increasing the variety of species you draw to your yard. It has been noted that squirrels are typically not interested in Nyjer seed so that keeps down on competition at the feeder.

2. Nyjer seed doesn’t produce thistle plants

Because finches are known for eating thistle seeds, the Nyjer seed was initially marketed as such, even though they produce an altogether different plant. But since thistle plants are not exactly favored and sought after by gardeners and farmers, the Wild Bird Feeding Industry eventually trademarked the name “Nyjer” to sell and market this bird food.

3. It’s also used in international cuisine

The plant it produces is a yellow flower called the Guizotia abyssinica, and it is grown in India, Ethiopia and Myanmar for its seed crop. The seeds are also pressed for cooking oil, or fried or ground and incorporated into various dishes.

4. It is the only major bird seed imported to the U.S.

Since 1985, U.S. Department of Agriculture has required that Nyjer seed is heat sterilized as a condition of entry, so it won’t germinate.

5. Nyjer seed is best served fresh

When this seed isn’t sold and consumed in a timely fashion, it can dry out and become much less appealing to the finches you want to draw into your yard. That’s why it’s important to turn to a trusted source like Lyric Wild Bird Food, that uses Stay Fresh technology in packaging the Nyjer Seed. We can deliver fresh, top-quality Nyjer seed so you can set out a welcoming feast for the finches in your neighborhood.

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