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.
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.
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!