Updated: Nov 10, 2020
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.
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What is Nyjer (niger) 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. 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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Wagner's Nyjer Seed - 10 lbs
Is Nyjer (niger) 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, but instead, niger 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 that niger seeds are derived from 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, niger 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.
Does Nyjer (niger) seed germinate?
First, here is a quick reminder. Niger seed is not thistle seed. So no, a thistle plant will NOT be produced from the seed. Additionally, the niger seed that is sold as birdseed is sterilized by heating the seed to almost 250°F! This not only sterilizes the niger seed, but this action also sterilizes any potentially noxious and invasive plant seeds that managed to mix in with the niger seed. If a niger plant does manage to sprout, the result would be a stunted plant that would be unable to produce seeds of its own. Why? Niger plants are sterile unless pollinated by bees. The hurdles needed for niger seed to become established are many. Feeding niger seed will likely not result in major invasive plant issues.
Where does Nyjer (niger) seed come from?
Niger originated in Africa, likely with some of the original seeds being named niger due to its origin from Nigeria. However, cultivated niger seed originated in Ethiopia. Currently, some niger seed is grown and produced in the United States. It is an adapted variety that matures at a much earlier date, often allowing it to be grown in conjunction with other crops such as wheat, corn, and soybean.
Which birds eat Nyjer (niger) seed?
The birds that feed on niger seed are primarily finches, but you can attract a variety of other birds with the promise of niger seed. While using niger 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.
Here are some North American birds that I have experienced eating niger seed. The list does not guarantee that any of these birds will show up to your niger seed feeder but instead offers a glimpse to the birds that COULD feed on niger if available.
American Tree Sparrow
Chickadees & Tits
How to feed Nyjer (niger) 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 niger 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!
Nyjer Sack (Sock) from C&S
WoodLink Magnum 'Thistle' Feeder
Ready to start using nyjer seed? Good. Enjoy the birds this unique food source attracts, and share your successes in the forum! We love to see the various feeding setups and the birds they attract!