You might know them as niger, nijer, nyjer or nyger seeds, but they are one and the same.
In this guide, we’ll be using the spelling ‘niger’ for consistency, as we take a closer look at the plants these tiny seeds derive from and which bird species are particularly fond of them. If you’re thinking of adding a niger seed feeder to your backyard, read on to learn more about what birds you can expect to attract.
Niger seeds are a fairly common offering at backyard feeders due to their popularity among a number of colorful bird species, including American Goldfinches, Redpolls and Indigo Buntings. Siskins and House Finches are also known fans of these tiny black seeds, which are an ideal size for their small, sharp bills.
Niger seeds derive from the plant Guizotia abyssinica, an annual plant with yellow daisy-like flowers, which is native to the highlands of Ethiopia, in northeastern Africa. It is now widely cultivated in India, Niger and Myanmar – the world’s leading exporters of niger seed for the bird feed market.
Niger seed grows well in temperate climates with moderate rainfall. Seed heads are harvested, and seeds are dried and cleaned. Before they can be exported and sold commercially and as bird feed, niger seeds must be sterilized at a high temperature which prevents them from germinating or sprouting. This avoids the issue of accidentally introducing a plant that may be harmful to native species.
An American Goldfinch - Niger seeds are a fairly common offering at backyard feeders due to their popularity among a number of colorful bird species
Niger is a highly nutritious seed option for backyard birds, rich in oils and fats and an ideal high-energy food during winter months.
With these health-boosting properties, it’s no wonder that it’s sometimes known as an avian superfood. Containing around 18% protein and 35% fat, niger seeds are low in sugars but provide a large amount of calcium and more than half of a bird’s necessary iron intake.
Niger seeds are a firm favorite of several backyard bird species, with the Goldfinch (both American and European) being perhaps the most well-known fan. Other colorful birds will also eagerly take their turn at the feeder, including Siskins, Redpolls and Nuthatches. Sparrows and Chickadees also regularly feast on niger seeds.
Birds with larger beaks, including Pigeons, Crows, Magpies and Jays, prefer larger, less fiddly seeds, as the effort needed to prise open the tiny shell of a niger seed is quite simply not worth their effort. Occasionally they will pick up any spilled seeds from below a feeder, but it isn’t one of their main food sources.
Goldfinches acrobatically cling onto niger seed feeders, and extract the tiny seeds with their sharp bills, cracking the outer shell and letting it drop to the floor while keeping hold of the inner kernel. Chickadees use their feet to hold onto the external husk while prising it open with their beak to get to the inside.
A Lesser Redpoll - Niger seeds are a firm favorite of several backyard bird species
Feeders designed specifically for niger seeds are ideal, with a narrow opening that allows access to the tiny seeds without the risk of excessive spillage. These hanging tube feeders usually have a small tray fitted underneath that prevents any leftovers from dropping onto the ground below.
Purpose-built feeders are best as the tiny seeds would simply pour out of the larger openings of standard hanging feeders or mesh peanut holders. It’s not advised to scatter niger seeds directly onto grass, due to its size and unsuitability as a food for most ground-feeding birds with larger beaks.
Hanging niger seed feeders in relatively open spaces at a height of around 1.5 m (5 ft) above ground will suit Goldfinches, as these are not typically woodland birds, and will have a chance to show off their acrobatic feeding techniques.
Alternatively, if there are teasels growing in your backyard – another well-known favorite of Goldfinches – you might like to try sprinkling niger seeds into their seed heads, so foraging finches find a bonus treat.
It’s advised to only fill feeders with a small amount of niger seeds until feeders start to get noticed and attract regular visitors. Niger seed spoils fairly quickly and needs to be replaced if it dries out or gets exposed to rainwater. Storing unused seeds in a moisture-free container with a lid will maintain freshness.
A European Goldfinch - if there are teasels growing in your backyard – another well-known favorite of Goldfinches – you might like to try sprinkling niger seeds into their seed heads, so foraging finches find a bonus treat
Niger seeds offer a good quality source of fat, especially during winter months when even a small amount will offer an important energy boost. This makes them ideal for birds with high metabolisms.
The high protein content of niger seeds makes them especially valuable during the molting season, helping with feather regeneration.
They are also easily digested, so do not pose any risks of choking.
Not all birds will show any interest in niger seeds, but those that do will certainly welcome a regularly stocked feeder in their foraging grounds.
Niger seeds offer useful nutrients for backyard birds at all times of the year, and are beneficial in all seasons, giving extra energy when raising young, offering protein when their plumage needs replacing and providing an intense calorie boost when winter conditions may make survival more challenging.
When buying niger seeds, it’s important to inspect the packaging to check that it’s tightly sealed and the contents are fresh and clean and not moldy or damp.
Before jumping in and buying an extra-large pack, it’s recommended to try a smaller quantity at first, until your feeders are noticed and start to attract regular visitors. Niger seeds spoil quickly and if they sit uneaten in a feeder for several weeks, they will definitely not appeal to any backyard birds.
One way of checking whether niger seed is fresh is to crush a handful onto paper and see if it leaves an oily residue behind. If it does, the seeds are fit to use as feed, but if they leave no trace of oil, this is a sign that they are past their best and have started to dry out.
Organic niger seed suppliers are recommended, where cultivation without pesticides or chemicals improves the quality and health benefits. All niger seed imported by the US and UK needs to have been sterilized so it will not germinate or sprout, introducing unwanted weeds.
A Pine Siskin - Niger seeds offer useful nutrients for backyard birds at all times of the year, and are beneficial in all seasons
When left out for an extended period, the oil in niger seeds begins to dry out and the seeds lose both their flavor and their health benefits. Similarly, niger seeds that have become wet due to exposure to rain are also not appetizing to backyard birds, as they can become clumpy.
Many small backyard birds may show an interest in a niger seed feeder, although it is known to be a particular favorite of finches and sparrows, as it is a perfect size for their short, sharp bills.
Squirrels and rats will steer clear of niger seed feeders, possibly because the tiny size of the seeds makes it not really worth their while to shell and eat what’s inside.
Despite their similar names, niger and nigella seeds are definitely not the same. Nigella seeds, also known as black cumin, are primarily used as a cooking ingredient, while niger seeds are most commonly used for feeding birds.
A Female House Sparrow - Many small backyard birds may show an interest in a niger seed feeder, although it is known to be a particular favorite of finches and sparrows, as it is a perfect size for their short, sharp bills
To avoid wastage or spoilage, it’s recommended to fill feeders only around halfway full until you establish a regular stream of visitors. Niger seed spoils quickly and becomes inedible if it dries out or if it becomes soggy or waterlogged.
Most purpose-built niger seed feeders are fitted with a tray beneath the feeder opening to avoid spillage onto the ground below. These are recommended, as they have smaller holes than regular seed feeders to avoid too much feed from pouring out.
Niger sold commercially in the United States and the United Kingdom is sterilized or cut so spilt seeds will not cause issues with sprouting on the ground beneath a feeder. Despite their size, niger seeds do have an inedible outer husk, which is discarded onto the ground, but this will not grow into unwanted plant shoots.
Not all birds are niger seed fans, due to their tiny size making them unsuitable for birds with larger or more rounded beaks. Sharp-billed finches are the most likely to benefit from their superfood properties, and
Regularly cleaning feeders and checking for damage are recommended actions for all backyard providers. By practicing good feeder hygiene and keeping a steady, fresh supply topped up, the chances are that you’ll soon be welcoming some particularly colorful visitors to your yard!
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