Nyjer (R), niger, and thistle are all names used to identify a tiny, black birdseed cultivated in Asia and Africa that is high in calories and oil content, loved by finches and other wild birds, and has been used in the feeding of wild birds for more than 40 years. However, only one name is correct: Nyjer (R).
To differentiate between the imported niger oilseed used to feed wild birds and thistle - as well as to eliminate any possibility of offensively mispronouncing the word "niger" - the Wild Bird Feeding Industry trademarked the name Nyjer in 1998. Unfortunately, Nyjer seed is still referred to by many people who feed wild birds as well as by some in the industry who package and sell wild bird food and as both niger and thistle.
How niger seed ever became confused with thistle seed in the first place is somewhat of a mystery, although it is probably due to the fact that some birds - goldfinches in particular - do eat the seeds of thistle plants and also use the downy fluff for their nests. If given a choice of thistle and Nyjer, however, birds will pick Nyjer over thistle due to the fact it is a superior seed that is higher in both calories and oil content.
Thistle is considered a noxious weed that is capable of taking over entire fields and is the bane of many farmers in North America. Unlike true niger oilseed (now Nyjer), which is known by the scientific name Guizotia abyssinica and has yellow, daisy-like flowers, thistle has pink to purple ball-shaped flowerheads that consist of many spine-tipped bracts.
ORIGINAL To protect our environment from any invasive weed seeds that may enter the country with the niger oilseed (Nyjer) that is imported and to prevent the introduction of the non-native niger (Nyjer) plants themselves, all shipments are heat sterilized to prevent germination. Occasionally a fertile seed slips in that is capable of sprouting and people may find that the yellow flowering plant growing under their Nyjer feeder is indeed Guizotia abyssinicia, which will make their finches very happy! This is not necessarily good news because even though niger (Nyjer) is not a weed, it spreads like one and produces zillions of seeds. Therefore, it should be removed to prevent it from escaping and competing with our native plants.
REVISED To protect our environment from any invasive weed seeds (like dodder seed) that may enter the country with the imported niger oilseed, all shipments are heat sterilized to prevent germination of these weeds. Very rarely, a fertile Nyjer seed may sprout a yellow flowering plant under their feeder and this is indeed Guizotia abyssinicia. This is not cause for worry as is won't last long; this seed does not grow well in any part of the United States. Simply remove the plant to prevent it from escaping and competing with our native plants.
Nyjer is a favorite of goldfinches as well as purple and house finches, pine siskins, and redpolls. Ground-feeding species such as doves, juncos, and sparrows also find Nyjer attractive. It can be purchased separately but can also be found in many wild bird seed mixes as well.
Sometimes referred to as "black gold" due to the higher price that results from importing and sterilizing costs, Nyjer should be offered in a specially designed feeder with tiny ports that prevent spillage even though whatever spills onto the ground will be readily eaten by other species. Since Nyjer is such a favorite of goldfinches and pine siskins, Nyjer feeders with ports located below the perches - known as "upside-down feeders" - are a good investment. Goldfinches and pine siskins are quite acrobatic and don't seem to mind hanging upside-down to feed, and these upside-down feeders give them additional opportunities to eat without competition from house and purple finches. They're fun to watch, too!
Additional information was provided to this page by E. George Strasser, USDA APHIS retired. In December of 1982 large shipments of niger seed were detained at ports of arrival because they were found contaminated with dodder. It was at this time E. George Strasser was given the task of finding a treatment to devitalise the dodder seed without destruction of the Nyjer seed's nutritive value or acceptability to birds. results were printed in Seed Sci. & Technology in 1988, 16, 501-505. The article was "Studies on the use of dry heat to decontaminate niger seed (Guizotia abyssinica) infested with dodder seed (Cuscuta sp.)" by Strasser, E.G.
— written by Carla Davis; The Wild Bird Lady (c) 2004 eBirdseed.com - Written permission required for use of images/text on these pages.
Carla Davis is a Habitat Consultant residing on Long Island, New York, where she gives seminars on how to develop Backyard Bird Habitats through bird feeding and native gardening at Garden Centers, Garden Clubs, Nature Centers, Schools, and Audubon Chapters. She has taught portions of the Master Birding Course for Cornell Cooperative Extension, Suffolk County, New York, and her property has been designated as an Official Backyard Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. She is a contributing writer to Birding Business magazine and The Bird's-Eye reView, the newsletter of the former National Bird-Feeding Society, where she served as a member of the Board of Directors.
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