The Origins of Nyjer Seed

Duncraft Classic Nyjer Tube Feeder at

We recently discovered something very interesting about one of Duncraft’s customers and very active Facebook Fan, Mr. E. George Strasser. How does Mr. Strasser come to be mentioned in an article about Nyjer seed? Read on…it’s a remarkable story.

What do you really know about Nyjer (formerly known as thistle) seed? None of the foods we feed our birds has caused more confusion than these tiny seeds.

Nyjer seed is grown in Ethiopia, India and Asia. Perhaps it was originally called thistle when it was imported for bird seed, because the seed resembles the seeds of the thistle plant which goldfinches depend on for food. Finches also use the thistledown to line their nests. Eventually the name was changed to niger seed to differentiate it from the spiny and invasive thistle plants of this country—because it’s definitely not the same thing! In 1998, the Wild Bird Feeding Industry changed the name again to Nyjer and trademarked the name, in part to ensure the correct pronunciation. Nyjer is simply irresistible to goldfinches and other finches because of its high oil content.

The Nyjer flower is small and yellow. Its seeds contain high oil and are pressed to make cooking oil in its native countries, and now 60% of the world’s production is imported into the U.S. as bird seed. And that’s where E. George Strasser enters the picture!

The problem with imported Nyjer seed is that it’s often accompanied by seeds of the dodder family. Dodder is a parasitic type of plant that grows no leaves of its own. The seeds can stay dormant in the ground for up to 20 years. When something grows near it, the seeds sprout roots which then begin to infiltrate the host plant. It then produces seed, kills the host plant and dies—and the whole cycle begins again. Obviously, this is not a plant we want in this country! In 1982, huge shipments of Nyjer seed, at port in California, were found to be infested with dodder seeds. Something had to be done to clean the Nyjer or it wouldn’t be allowed into the U.S.

George then worked for the USDA and was given the task of inventing a way to eliminate the dodder seeds in the Nyjer shipments. In the process, he had to make sure the oil content of the Nyjer wasn’t destroyed so the seed would still be viable as bird seed.

After several failed attempts, George finally devised a method where the contaminated Nyjer seed was run through ovens on huge conveyor belts. The seeds were heated to the boiling point, which was 212 degrees F. for dodder seed. Dodder is mostly water, so it reached the boiling point faster than Nyjer seed and in the process was killed, while the Nyjer wasn’t. Although the oil in the Nyjer seed remained, the seeds were rendered sterile in the process. There’s no guarantee that Nyjer won’t sprout in your garden or lawn, but it’s highly unlikely. George actually solved two problems. Not only were the shipments saved and our finches supplied with nutritious, high-oil seeds, but Nyjer is lawn and garden friendly as well! Although the method may have changed slightly over the years, all Nyjer seed coming into this country continues to be heat treated as required by the USDA.

George’s method for saving our finch seed was published in Seed Science & Technology in 1988, 16, 501-505. The article was entitled “Studies on the use of dry heat to decontaminate niger seed (Guizotia abyssinica) infested with dodder seed (Cuscuta sp.)” by Strasser, E.G. Way to go, George!

George retired from the USDA in 1992 and resides with June, his wife of 44 years. He hails from New Jersey where he enjoys gardening, feeding the birds and sometimes sings bass for his church choir. Thank you, George, for the time you spent giving me the information for this story—I was delighted to write it!

—Written by R. Brune

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  • Nanci June 21, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Great story! Thank you for sharing.

  • Roberta June 23, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Wonderful and interesting story! Thank goodness George saved the seed
    because the finches love the seed so much and I so enjoy watching them
    eat that little tiny seed!

  • Betty June 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    I knew about the name change, but not the heat treating. Great job, George!

  • Gayle July 29, 2011 at 10:32 am

    I really enjoyed reading the article, and am a big fan of gold finches. I usually buy a Nyjer mix called Nyjer Plus which combines the Nyjer seeds with sunflower hearts. The finches seem to enjoy the sunflower hearts as much, if not more, than the Nyjer seeds. They always return each year for more.

  • Diane July 29, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    Very interesting story.

  • Linda July 31, 2011 at 7:06 am

    I only started feeding the finches the last couple of years. I didn’t even know we had them in my area until a friend told me. I certainly knew nothing about the origin of the seed. Thank You George!

  • Judy Joerger July 31, 2011 at 11:27 am

    Wonderful story. I had no idea about the history of these seeds. Thanks for helping us!

  • E. George Strasser August 3, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Thank you, and thanks to Duncraft. Glad you enjoyed the story. I love feeding and watching the goldfinches also.
    I believe the goldfinch is called a disselfink (in German) meaning “thistle finch” because of its heavy reliance on the thistle plant for food, and nesting material.

  • Ann Ruebel August 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

    I want to attract goldfinches with the Nyjer seed and am wondering what kind of a feeder I should use–or can I just broadcast it on my stone patio? Can any of you please advise me? I live in NY state.

  • E. George Strasser August 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    No, don’t broadcast it as it would be wasteful and the seed is a little on the expensive side. The seed is filled with oil and large amounts when crushed can be slippery. Duncraft has a large selection of special nyjer feeders that are excellent for your needs. Ihope this is helpful.