Nyjer, niger or thistle – just what is the little black seed that small birds find irresistible?
What’s in a Name
The seed of the African yellow daisy Guizotia abyssinica, Nyjer is known by many names. Originally called niger in reference to Nigeria and the plant’s origin, the name was trademarked as Nyjer ® in 1998 by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry to clarify pronunciation. Many backyard birders also call the seed thistle, but in fact Nyjer is not related to thistle plants or seeds. It is believed that calling the seed thistle may have become popular because goldfinches, which adore Nyjer, also feed on thistle and use thistle down to construct their nests.
Commercial Nyjer is grown in Africa, India and other areas of southeast Asia, and the seed is imported around the world as a popular type of birdseed. Before it is imported, however, Nyjer seed is sterilized by intense heat to prevent germination of any additional seeds that may be part of the mix. Treated Nyjer may germinate but would typically be stunted, limiting its spread and offering less of a threat to native plants.
A type of oilseed, Nyjer is a popular birdseed because after sterilization it will not sprout if spilled and because it is an exceptional energy source for backyard birds. The basic nutritional components of Nyjer are:
- 35 percent fat (25 percent minimum)
- 18 percent protein (16 percent minimum)
- 18 percent fiber (20 percent maximum)
- 12 percent moisture (maximum)
Because of this composition, Nyjer is especially popular as a winter bird food, when birds require foods with more oil and a higher calorie content so they can store fat to survive colder temperatures. The protein in Nyjer is also useful for regenerating feathers when birds molt in the late fall and early spring.
Birds That Eat Nyjer
Many seed-eating bird species will happily eat nothing but Nyjer. Birds that will take Nyjer from feeders include:
- House and purple finches
- Song sparrows
- Lesser and American goldfinches
- Pine siskins
- Mourning doves
- Hoary and common redpolls
- Dark-eyed juncos
While all these birds will enjoy Nyjer if it is offered, not all of them will eat it exclusively. Goldfinches, redpolls and siskins, however, will eat nothing but Nyjer if it is readily available.
Because of import taxes and the cost of sterilizing the seed, Nyjer is one of the most expensive types of birdseed to offer. Buying Nyjer in bulk is often more cost effective than smaller quantities, and excess Nyjer can be stored for weeks in a cool, dry place.
Birders can make the seed even more affordable by adding Nyjer to a birdseed mix rather than feeding it straight, or they can offer Nyjer in specialized feeders to prevent spills and restrict access to the seeds to only the most desirable birds. Tube feeders with narrow feeding ports, wire mesh feeders and nylon mesh socks are popular Nyjer feeder designs that are perfect for small, clinging finches but less suitable for larger birds that may strip feeders more quickly.
While Nyjer seeds do not typically sprout, the biggest problem with feeding Nyjer is the mess the hulls will leave beneath feeders. A thick coating of small black hulls can choke off grass and plants, and while ground feeding birds such as quail and juncos will appreciate spilled Nyjer, it can be frustrating to see these expensive seeds littering the ground. Adding a platform beneath the feeder or choosing a feeder design with a wide base can minimize spilled hulls and loose seed, or birders can put newspaper or an outdoor rug underneath feeders to catch spills. Choosing a heavier feeder can also prevent seed from spilling when feeders are blown in the wind.
Nyjer is a great seed to offer finches and other small seed-loving birds. By understanding why this seed is so popular, it is easy to offer it in the backyard and enjoy the different colorful and energetic birds it attracts.