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What is Nyjer seed (or thistle seed)?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Have you ever had a neighbor complain that your finch feeder introduced thistle into their yard? Well, arm yourself with some knowledge to shut neighbor Dick down.

Pine Siskins are regular visitors of thistle or nyjer feeders.
Pine Siskins are regular visitors of thistle feeders.

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What is Nyjer or thistle seed?

Nyjer™ seed, also known as niger seed or thistle seed, is a high oil-content seed used frequently in backyard bird feeders to attract a variety of finches. The name Nyjer is a registered trademark of the Wild Bird Feeding Institute, created as a way to differentiate it from the term niger, which is offensive when mispronounced. This post will refer to this birdseed as Nyjer seed.


Nyjer™ has a thin shell and is vulnerable to spoilage while in a tube or sock feeder, and once the seed dries, birds are less apt to feed upon it. Nyjer seed provides a high fat and protein content for birds, which is why it is appreciated even more in winter when fat stores are used heavily.


Many bird lovers refer to nyjer as thistle seed; however, this seed is not derived from the same plant we refer to as thistle.

 

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Our Recommended Nyjer Seed: Wagner's Nyjer Seed

Is Nyjer seed the same as thistle seed?

Bird professionals have received many calls and messages over the years from people complaining about their neighbor's "thistle" feeder introducing the prickly plant into their yard. Each time I receive these concerns, I get to squash a potential feud by revealing... Nyjer seed is NOT thistle. The seed is not derived from any native or non-native thistle plant; instead, the Nyjer seed is actually derived from a plant in the same plant tribe as sunflowers. The seed resembles a sunflower seed but is significantly smaller. One common name used for the plant from which niger seeds are derived is the African yellow daisy.


If you are into scientific names, Guizotia abyssinica is the Latin name for the Nyjer plant. The Guizotia niger seed produces an edible oil, and the seed is consumed in many parts of the world. Due to its popularity with birdwatchers, Nyjer seed has become a commercial agriculture product grown in the United States.


So no, your 'thistle' feeder did not introduce the noxious weed into your neighbor's yard, and they can go whine to the wind. Though... I have heard that the wind is not much of a listener.

 

Our favorite small quantity Nyjer feeder: Stokes Nyjer Feeders

 

Does Nyjer seed germinate and grow weeds like thistle?

First, here is a quick reminder. Nyjer seed is not thistle seed. So no, a thistle plant will NOT be produced from the seed. Additionally, the Nyjer seed that is sold as birdseed is sterilized by heating the seed to almost 250°F! This not only sterilizes the Nyjer seed, but this action also sterilizes any potentially noxious and invasive plant seeds that managed to mix in with the Nyjer seed. If a Nyjer plant does manage to sprout, the result would be a stunted plant that could not produce its own seeds. Why? Nyjer plants are sterile unless pollinated by bees. The hurdles needed for Nyjer seed to become established are many. Feeding Nyjer seed will likely not result in major invasive plant issues.


Where does Nyjer seed come from?

Nyjer originated in Africa, likely with some of the original seeds being named Nyjer™ (niger) due to its origin in Nigeria. However, the cultivated Nyjer™ seed originated in Ethiopia. Currently, some Nyjer™ seed is grown and produced in the United States, though the majority of these seeds are likely not used for feeding birds. The US variety is an adapted plant that matures at a much earlier date, often allowing it to be grown in conjunction with other crops such as wheat, corn, and soybean. The majority of the Nyjer™ seed grown for feeding birds comes from Ethiopia and India.


Which birds eat Nyjer seed?

The birds that feed on Nyjer seed are primarily finches, but you can attract a variety of other birds with the promise of Nyjer seed. While using Nyjer as your main birdseed may not be ideal for attracting the largest variety of birds, it is a great complement to sunflower seed and suet. It can attract a variety of birds, including finches, sparrows, chickadees, buntings, doves, nuthatches, quail, and more!


Below is a list of North American birds that I have experienced eating Nyjer seed. The list does not guarantee that any of these birds will show up to your Nyjer seed feeder but instead offers a glimpse of the birds that COULD feed on Nyjer if available.

Pine Siskins are attracted to nyjer or thistle feeders
Pine Siskins are attracted to nyjer or thistle feeders

Finches

Lesser Goldfinch

Lawrence's Goldfinch

Pine Siskin

Common Redpoll

Hoary Redpoll


Sparrows

Yellow-eyed Junco

Lincoln's Sparrow

Song Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow


Chickadees & Tits

Black-crested Titmouse

Gray-headed Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee

Mexican Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Bushtit


Nuthatches

Pygmy Nuthatch

Brown-headed Nuthatch


Cardinals & family

Pyrrhuloxia

Blue Grosbeak


Buntings

Indigo Bunting

Lazuli Bunting

Varied Bunting


Doves

White-winged Dove

Inca Dove


Quail

Scaled Quail

Gambel's Quail


How to feed Nyjer or thistle seed to birds?

This may seem obvious to some, but if you are a first-time bird-feeder, you may not genuinely know which type of feeder to use to feed birds. Wire mesh and fabric feeders are my preferred Nyjer seed feeder types, but tube feeders with small feeding holes are acceptable. I am not a fan of feeder ports, but there are some who prefer that type of tube feeder.


Sock and mesh feeders are very easy to clean and maintain and can each host multiple birds per unit!


Budget Nyjer Feeder: Nyjer Sack (Sock) from C&S

WoodLink Magnum 'Thistle' or Nyjer Feeder

Ready to start using Nyjer™ seed? Good. Enjoy the birds this unique food source attracts, and share your successes in the comments below! We love to see the various feeding setups and the birds they attract!


 

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2 Comments


Unknown member
Nov 14, 2022

You write “Nyjer has a thin shell and is vulnerable to spoilage while in a tube or sock feeder, and once the seed dries, birds are less apt to feed upon it.” But later in the article, you recommend tube and sock feeders for feeding nyjer seed. This seems to be a contradiction.

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Chris Sedlmayr
Chris Sedlmayr
May 05, 2023
Replying to

I'm sure that there is a time that is good to use the sock feeder. In eastern Idaho for example, in summertime there is not a lot of rain to spoil the seed in a sock feeder.

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