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Birding Business

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This month’s bird

The Hairy Woodpecker

An Imported Delicacy

Nyjer(®) - an International Favorite

Birds from the north and seed from the far east may not seem to go together, but finches and siskins love this exotic import.

Russian caviar.  Greek olives.  French truffles.  Imported food items exude an aura of luxury and incredible taste, a treat for a special occasion or a personal reward.  Pity the poor backyard birds that are destined to eat the same daily diet of bland domestic food stuffs.  They never get to experience the joy of an imported delicacy.  Or do they? Some do.

nyjer sockNyjer seed is the one major seed that is not grown in North America.  It is imported, coming from Ethiopia, India, Myanmar and Nepal where it is grown as an oil seed crop.   This imported delicacy is highly favored primarily by finches and siskins.  Most other species are not enticed by its imported taste, and squirrels usually ignore it.

Although nyjer has been sold as bird seed for 40 years, most customers are unaware of its international origin.  This is due in part to the fact that nyjer was often erroneously referred to as "thistle" seed.  Thistle seed is a native plant whose seeds finches like.  So the term "thistle" was applied to any seed that finches like.  Old timers still refer to nyjer as thistle.  But it is not.  It is different.  You can commonly see the distinctive pink to purple color flower of domestic thistle plants growing in fields and along roadsides.  Thistle is a hardy, aggressive weed, spreads easily and is capable of quickly taking over entire fields.   For that reason farmers hate it, considering it a noxious, invasive weed.  Never tell a farmer that you sell thistle seed.

Nyjer is not thistle.   They are two similar but different seeds.  Nyjer, for example, has a white to yellow flower, not a blue flower.  The two seeds may appear somewhat alike to us.  But, given a choice, finches flock to nyjer.  It is more nutritious with a higher oil content and greater caloric value.

As with all non-native species, farmers worry about the potential spread of a thistle-like weed.  And there is always concern about deliberately introducing an invasive species to this country.  The USDA imposed rules that require all imported nyjer be heat-treated (or sterilized) to devitalize the seed, including any weed seeds, that might be present.  Nyjer is heated to a minimum of 250 _F for at least 15 minutes.  This heat treatment ensures the seed will not germinate.  Your customers won't find nyjer plants growing under their feeders.  (Even if an occasional seed does germinate, nyjer does not grow well in our soil and weather conditions.)

Nyjer gives you the opportunity to sell a new feeder as well as seed to your current customers.  Once a customer owns a basic seed feeder, they often want to attract more, and different birds.  Customers love to attract goldfinches and goldfinch love nyjer. This makes a perfect marriage.  
Most birds, other than finches, are not fond of nyjer.  Neither are squirrels, so when a customer hangs a nyjer feeder in their backyard they have essentially opened a restaurant that primarily attracts finches. 

Nyjer is a very tiny seed.   When it is used in a standard seed feeder there is a chance that it may accidently spill out.  It is best to use a specially-designed feeder with a very small seed port.  A great variety of designs is available for the purpose.  There is even one design with the feeding ports located below the perches requiring birds to hang upside-down to eat.  A goldfinch can do that easily, but house finches can't.  They fall off the perch when they try to eat upside-down.  The result is a feeder for goldfinches only.

I confess to being a graduate of the old school and having to learn to call nyjer by its official name and stop referring to it as thistle.  That is not all.  I learned more about this tiny seed.

One Tuesday morning a woman strode into the store carrying a new nyjer feeder she had purchased on the weekend.  "Finches don't like your nyjer" she proclaimed pointing to numerous small black spots on the tray attached to the bottom of the feeder. "They just dump it out of the feeder."
On close examination we both learned that the spots were not complete nyjer seeds.  Rather, they were simply the outer covering of the nyjer seeds that dropped to the tray when the finches opened the seed.  I never imagined that such a tiny seed could have a shell.

Another thing I learned is that you shouldn't save or store nyjer for long periods once a bag is opened.  Customers sometimes save the unused portion of an opened bag and want to use it again the following spring.  They are surprised that finches ignore it.  Nyjer is a very oily seed.  That is good.  But because it is so oily it dries out more quickly than other seeds and becomes "stale".  I've helped customers attract their finches by discarding the old seed and replacing it with fresh nyjer.

Nyjer is sometimes dubbed "black gold".  It is unclear whether this nickname refers to its value in attracting the colorful, acrobatic finches that customers love.  Or possibly it is a comment on the higher cost of ocean shipping and heat treatment. Both meanings are true.  Either way it is a valuable asset to store owners.  Customers love the birds it attracts.  And it is a premium price seed that is not usually available in grocery or hardware stores.   Stocking Nyjer identifies your store as a knowledgeable bird feeding retailer.

BY HANK WEBER | Contributing Editor