Laura Erickson tells why finches might not eat the Nyjer seed you provide

3/28/2014 | 7

This Hoary Redpoll visited Laura Erickson’s yard in January 2013 but didn’t eat the Nyjer seed she provided. Photo by Laura Erickson.

This Hoary Redpoll visited Laura Erickson’s yard in January 2013 but didn’t eat the Nyjer seed she provided. Photo by Laura Erickson.

Redpolls invaded northern Minnesota in the fall of 2012.

The tiny finches appeared in my Duluth yard in November and fed in droves in my box elder and birch trees and at my tube and flat sunflower-seed feeders, but not once did I see them at any of my Nyjer feeders.

Contributing Editor Laura Erickson.

Contributing Editor Laura Erickson.

When I spread Nyjer on half of one of my platform feeders, the birds ate from the other half. We switched feeders, offering Nyjer in tubes that the birds had been using for sunflower seeds, and they stopped eating at them. Through the winter, we never saw a redpoll, siskin, or goldfinch take Nyjer seed.

Laura Erickson recently received the ABA’s highest honor.

Our supply was new that November. When I bought it, I’d been reading about the settlement of a 2008 lawsuit regarding bird-killing insecticides added to some birdseed. With this in mind, I wondered whether my seed was toxic.

The probability was low. When seed is contaminated by pesticides, fungus, or bacteria, bird carcasses are usually discovered in the vicinity, but we’d not found any. And why would birds shun our feeders in the first place unless some had sampled the seed?

American Bird Conservancy had started analyzing seed for pesticides and other toxins. In April 2011, the director of ABC’s Pesticides and Birds Program announced that the lab work showed that all of the tested seed either was free from pesticides or contained amounts below levels that would threaten bird health. “America’s bird watchers should feel assured that their feathered friends are getting a healthy food product.”

If so, why were finches shunning my Nyjer? Nancy Castillo, co-owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Saratoga Springs, New York, and author of the blog Zen Birdfeeder, points out that Nyjer contains natural high-calorie oils that attract finches. When the oils dry out, the seed loses both its food value and its flavor, and birds shun it. (They will also shun Nyjer if it gets wet and clumpy.) Nancy reminds us to buy only enough to last a month or two.

But my problems were with brand-new seed. When sellers or distributors hold onto unsold Nyjer too long, it may dry up before we buy it. Also, because Nyjer is related to thistle and could germinate into noxious weeds, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires it to be heat-sterilized before sale. If it is heated at too high a temperature or for too long, those essential oils might be dried before the seed is even packaged.

Read the manual “Seeds Not for Planting” U.S. Department of Agriculture (PDF).

Nyjer is like coffee beans — the flavor depends on proper roasting and freshness. When possible, look at the seed before buying. If it appears dull, or if many brown seeds are mixed with the black ones, it may be too old or may have been overheated. Shiny black seeds retain the oils that keep finches well nourished and birdwatchers enjoying them. — Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appears in every issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe. This article appeared in the April 2014 issue. Laura is a co-author of National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America and the author of Laura’s Birding Blog. On the blog Laura’s Conservation Big Year, she describes her attempt to find and photograph species of conservation concern.


  • Carol

    Does anyone have constructive ideas for what to do with niger seed hulls? They pile up
    under my birdfeeders. I sweep them up but ponder what to do with them. Help?

    • Marilyn Crosbie

      Just a thought – add them to your compost, if you collect compost. Otherwise, just through them in with your regular kitchen garbage scraps.

  • Marilyn Crosbie

    It could also be that finches are not nearby, even if they do live in your general area. They may just not have discovered your feeders yet. I agree with you about the seeds being old. I bought some from Walmart and ended up throwing them away. I think bought some from a store that specializes in bird seed. The nyjer is of a better quality, but so far, the birds are not eating it. I was wondering about mixing nyjer in with other seed mixes. Will a wide range of song birds eat nyjer seeds? (For example sparrows?)

  • patinjersey

    I have trouble with that too. But, what I really want to know is why birds will NOT, in my yard, eat hulled sunflower seed? Tried it last year.. same problem. And it was just purchased, fresh and not wet as of a cold January day here, 2017, in NJ. I’m beginning to think that the hulled sunflower just loses its oil and becomes tasteless.

  • Aaron

    I have been feeding the wild finches with Nyjer seeds for a few years and always used to see dozens of finches fighting to get to the feeders. Ever since I filled one of the feeders with sunflower seeds, the fiches ditched the Nyjer and have not looked back. Interestingly enough, I also have a parrot (who lives indoors). In the past year we switched him to a food that had some sunflower seeds, and he started avoiding the other seeds and only eating the sunflower seeds. I think this points toward the simple theory that birds seem to love sunflower seeds over most others when given the option. This is all based on an amateurs observations, but it’s worth considering.

    • Maryann Tazik Parker

      I think you’re observation is correct. I watch the finches start at the Nyjer tube and then quickly hop over to the sunflower seeds. And they certainly eat from the Nyjer tube when the sunflowers are gone. Unfortunately, that seems to be the favorite of the grey squirrel, as well.

  • Monty Thomson

    In your article you state that “Nyjer is related to thistle”. I have read several articles which state that nyjer is not a thistle. “This is a misnomer resulting from early marketing of the seed as “thistle” to take advantage of the finches’ preference for thistle.” – and using thistle down to line their nests (see OR OR It is deemed a noxious weed and so requires heat sterilization before entering the U.S. Otherwise, I found your article most informative and helpful. Thank you.