Goldfinches, purple and house finches, pine siskins, and redpolls are all birds that will flock to your backyard with a nyjer seed bird feeder. It can be a thistle tube bird feeder or a thistle sock bird feeder or one of the newer style wire mesh thistle feeders.
Nyjer, nyger, niger and thistle are all names used to refer to a small black seed cultivated in India and Ethiopia for over a thousand years. The true niger seed comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant which is an annual herb grown for its edible oil and seed. It is NOT a type of thistle and is not a weed. As a matter of fact, it is now grown in the United States.
Niger seed probably got confused with thistle because goldfinches are known to eat thistle seed and use the downy fluff from thistle plants for their nests. In an attempt to differentiate these two terms in the mind of the public, the Wild Bird Feeding Institute trademarked the name Nyjer in 1998. I don't think that this was successful however because most people still think Nyjer seed is some kind of thistle and a noxious weed if allowed to grow.
When you purchase Nyjer seed, many companies still use the word thistle on the package which has the unintended result of confusing the public even more. This bird seed is imported from India and Ethiopia and by USDA regulations must be sterilized, not to keep the niger seed from spouting, but to keep other noxious weeds that are incidentally mixed in with the niger seed from sprouting. As stated above, there is now American grown niger seed available here in the United States that is not sterilized.
Because Nyjer seed is so expensive (over a dollar a pound in 2008) it is important to feed this seed in specially designed feeders. A good Nyjer seed bird feeder will allow several birds to feed at once without excess seed being wasted. The thistle tube bird feeders should be your first choice in my experience. They are made of polycarbonate tubes with small slits in the plastic, just large enough for the finches to pull out one seed at a time. This limits the amount of wasted seed.
The Nyjer seed bird feeders made of wire mesh would be my second choice. These feeders allow flocking goldfinches to feed wherever they land, plus some hold large amounts of Nyjer seed. They are probably best used with a seed tray below to catch spilled seed.
A thistle sack bird feeder is an inexpensive choice as far as the initial cost of the feeder goes. Made of durable, fine mesh nylon, these feeders allow as many hungry finches to feed as can comfortably hang on the thistle sack. They now are available in black which makes the beautiful goldfinches really stand out. These mesh bags will cost you more in the long run than the other types of Nyjer seed bird feeders because of wasted seed.
Which ever feeder you choose, you are guaranteed to have flocks of Goldfinches visiting your backyard!
Larry Jordan has been bird watching for many years and building birdhouses for over 26 years. He is a member of the Audubon Society and is the Shasta County Coordinator for the California Bluebird Recovery Program. He strives to get more people interested in birding activities, including bird conservation. For more information on bird watching, bird houses, feeding wild birds, birds in the news, bird conservation, and some great bird photos go to The Birder's Report and sign up for his newsletter or his RSS Feed. If you are looking for quality bird and birding products, please visit his online store at Birds In My Yard for some great deals and great service.