Wild birds are fussy little beggars. They eat every soft fruit in the garden despite them having a banquet of seeds and fat balls. They then spread brambles around the place. Evidence that our blackbirds even devour gooseberries is produced in the gooseberry seedlings that appear in the flower beds. You will quickly discover that although crows are a pest in wheatfields, if you try to buy cheap seed mixes for your garden birds the devils will throw those on the floor for the rats and only eat the choice bits.
Wild bird feeding is big business, and a life saver not just for the birds. Garden centres now rely on their ranges to keep them alive in the winter too. When I was young we would put out bacon rinds and bread for the birds but bread is verboten now as being nutritionally deficient, even though it is OK for us humans to eat. You can even buy peanut butter for birds, for those tits without the teeth to chew nuts presumably.
The biggest growth must surely be in the sales of nyjer seeds, those little black seeds that attract finches of all kinds. Great for the finches and great for suppliers too since they need a special feeder to hold them. I always thought that my baking required lots of equipment but to satisfy the needs of all those birds you need an arsenal of different feeders.
I always thought that nyjer seeds were the seeds (OK, technically fruits or achenes) of Carthamnus tinctoria, the plant that has flowers that are bright yellow and often dried as a source of fake saffron. It is often for sale in Spanish holiday resorts as saffon to unsuspecting punters.
But the fussy finches, which have been devouring a never-ending supply of nyjer seeds all year, chuck the seeds they don’t fancy all over the garden and as these have been growing, I let some get beyond the seedling stage and as they grew I realised I had something different.
Nyjer seeds actually come from Guizotia abyssinica, an annual from Ethiopia. In parts of Ethiopia and Asia the seeds are used for human consumption and the oil is used in manufacturing but in Europe it is best known as a bird feed. Because it is so loved by finches, which traditionally eat thistle seeds, nyjer seed is often called thistle seed and it was better known as niger seeds but the name changed to avoid unpleasant connotations.
Because it is an annual and potentially invasive, seed is often heat treated to prevent it germinating, though this is obviously not the case in Ireland. In the US it is heat treated to prevent the growth of weed contaminants, especially the angiosperm parasite dodder. To avoid the need for imported seeds improved strains have been bred in the US including ‘Earlybird 50’ which matures in just 50 days.
As weeds go, it is not unattractive. But I remember the days before we all spent a fortune on sparrows and everyone had budgies, emptying out their sand trays in the garden. Then the itinerant plants were grasses and hemp plants, leading to stories in local papers about grannies being arrested on drugs charges. How times have changed.
Sorry about the pics – it was a windy wet day.