5 Common Reasons Birds Avoid Your Thistle & How to Make It Irresistible

american goldfinch dining on thistle seed

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5 Common Reasons Birds Avoid Your Thistle & How to Make It Irresistible

american goldfinch dining on thistle seed

This post contains affiliate links, and we will be compensated if you buy after clicking on our links.

Why won’t the birds eat my thistle seed? A common question and one that is easily answered and fixed!

Birds won’t eat your seed for one or more of these common reasons:

  1. The seed is stale
  2. Feeder issues
  3. Environmental factors
  4. Competition
  5. Food preferences

I’ll explain why birds might be skipping your feeder and give you four effective ways to bring them back for your seeds!

This article was reviewed by Tammy Poppie, an expert in attracting birds to her yard using thistle seed since 1999. Her experience and knowledge validate the information presented here.

5 Common Reasons Birds Might Avoid Thistle Seeds

The first step to getting birds to eat your seed is to figure out why they aren’t eating it now. The solution likely lies in one of the 5 common problems listed below.

  1. The seed is stale
  2. Feeder issues
  3. Environmental factors
  4. Competition
  5. Food preferences.

1. The seed is stale

The main reason birds avoid your food is due to its age and staleness. Fresh seed, containing appealing oils, deteriorates in quality, becoming dry and unappealing to birds within a few months.

Here are some simple ways to determine the freshness of your seed:

  • Visual: Look for shiny, black seeds; dull or grayish seeds may be stale.
  • Feel: Seeds should be oily and smooth, not dry or crumbly. Crush a seed with your fingernail and you’ll know if the oil is still there.
  • Smell: Seeds should smell natural and slightly nutty, not off or rancid.
  • Clumping: Seeds should flow freely without clumps, which suggests moisture.
  • Expiration Date: Check for and adhere to the use-by or expiration date on the original package.

2. Feeder Issues

  • Feeder Design: Thistle seeds are really small and can fall out of feeders if the holes are too big. You need a special feeder for these tiny seeds.
  • Attracting Different Birds: Some feeders are made for certain birds. If your feeder isn’t right for small birds that like thistle seeds, big birds might come instead and scare the small ones away.
  • Location: If you put the feeder where there’s a lot of noise or movement, little birds might not come. They like quiet and safe spots.
  • Cleanliness: Birds don’t like dirty feeders. If the feeder isn’t clean, they won’t come, even if it has their favorite thistle seeds.

3. Environmental Factors

When there’s plenty of seed naturally available, your food is likely to go untouched. If birds aren’t using your feeders, they may be getting enough food already!

American golfinch on a thistle
American goldfinch on a thistle. Photo by Mike Carmo.

Major changes to the environment around your backyard could be responsible too.

  • Has there been especially harsh weather recently?
  • Did a popular nesting tree get taken down?

If you’re noticing fewer birds than usual in your backyard, this might be the reason.

Also, trying to attract birds to a backyard with predators present is a recipe for disaster. Whether it’s birds of prey or an outdoor cat, predators are guaranteed to keep small birds away.

4. Competition

Because this particular bird food is best suited to smaller birds, bigger birds may be scaring them away from your yard. Blue Jays might be bullying away finches, like the one in this video, bullies away a mourning dove!

YouTube video

If you’re putting it out with other seeds, bigger birds might eat up everything else and ignore the tiny seed. They may also be scaring away the smaller species who would otherwise enjoy it.

5. Food Preferences

Finally, if you’ve recently switched to thistle from other seeds, birds may not be used to the change. As a result, they’ll still expect a different kind of seed and may be resistant to trying the new one.

4 Proven Strategies to Make Your Thistle Irresistible

1. Improve Seed Freshness & Quality

Start by buying fresh seeds. Especially if you’re putting out seed that’s months or even years old, it’s no wonder birds aren’t eating it up.

Buy small batches of fresh seed every couple of months instead of a massive bag that won’t get used up for years.

Also, don’t keep your seeds in the bag they came in. Store your seeds in airtight containers in cool areas to keep them fresh.

2. Feeder Adjustments

These seeds are tiny, meaning they don’t work well with many common feeders. Some birds prefer different feeders to suit their perching style (oftentimes upside down). Your best option for getting birds to eat thistle seed and support a style perch includes:

  • Tube Feeders
  • Metal Mesh Feeders
  • Fabric Mesh Feeders

Because dirty feeders will get ignored, be sure you also clean them regularly. Like bad seeds, dirty feeders can also get birds sick, so it’s important to clean them often.

Also, moving your feeders can make a huge difference in how interested birds are. Putting your feeder in a quieter, safer area will make it much more attractive to small birds.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with seed cylinders. The Finch Favorite Birdseed Cylinder from JC’s Wildlife contains Nyjer seed and sunflower chips. The finches in my yard love it so it must be fresh!

finches feeding from cylinder feeder with thistle seed
House finches snacking on the Finch Favorite Bird Seed Cylinder in my yard.

3. Address Environmental and Competitive Factors

As mentioned, location can be a major reason small birds aren’t eating your food. Use the plants in your yard to your advantage here. Shrubs and trees can provide natural cover for feeders to make them safer for small birds.

Multiple Feeders

squirrel stopper sequoia bird pole with feeders on it
Squirrel Stopper Sequoia Bird Pole.

If you’re noticing a lot of larger birds in your yard, get a couple of different feeders to reduce competition. Use a platform feeder for large birds and a tube feeder for smaller birds. This way, there will be enough food to go around for everyone.

This will vary depending on what birds you get in your backyard and how they behave. Keep an eye on what’s happening and use your judgment to make necessary changes.

Protection from Predators

If natural predators are an issue, there are a few things you can do to deter them like providing trees and shrubs for cover. This allows the tiny birds a safe place to wait while they determine the feeder is safe to approach and a place to quickly dart out to in case of danger.

cardinal in serviceberry bush eating berries
A northern cardinal and sparrow seek refuge in a shrubby tree.

Putting up scarecrows is another prey deterrent. Just remember birds of prey will get used to scarecrows in a single location so move them around every few weeks.

Also, if you have any outdoor cats, keep them inside if you want to keep your backyard safe for the birds!

4. Introducing New Foods

Have you been putting out seeds for a while and only recently started offering thistle? If so, you may be confusing the birds in your backyard.

Consider slowly adding more and more of it to a seed mix the birds are already used to. Or, buy a premade mix that includes these seeds alongside other finch-friendly seeds.

For a mix that already includes thistle seed, check out Cole's Finch Friends Bird Seed from JC's Wildlife. 

Birds that Prefer Thistle Seed

YouTube video

Thistle seeds are well-known for attracting small birds, like finches. As you can see from the photo above, American goldfinches love it!

Below are more species that adore this seed:

  • California Quail
  • Chickadees
    • Black-capped Chickadee
    • Boreal Chickadee
    • Carolina Chickadee
    • Chestnut-Backed Chickadee
    • Mountain Chickadee
  • Dark-Eyed Juncos
  • Doves
    • Inca dove
    • Mourning dove
  • Finches
    • American Goldfinch
    • House finch
    • Purple finch
    • Cassin’s finch
    • Rosy finch
  • Pine Siskins
  • Redpolls
    • Common redpoll
    • Hoary redpoll
  • Sparrows
    • American tree sparrow
    • Chipping sparrow
    • Fox Sparrow
    • Song sparrow
  • Tufted titmouse

Birds that won’t eat thistle seed

Not all birds are attracted to it. Birds that primarily eat fruits or insects, for instance, tend to bypass this seed in favor of their preferred food sources. This includes species like:

  • Orioles
  • Waxwings
  • Hummingbirds

Thistle vs. Nyjer: What’s the difference?

The terms “thistle” and “Nyjer” are often used interchangeably, but they’re very different.

What we’re actually referring to is Nyjer (Guizotia abyssinica). It appears Nyjer took on this name because of its similarity to wild thistle – commonly eaten by finches and other animals.

Thistle Seed

True thistle seed comes from plants in the family of the same name.

Field (Cirsium discolor) and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) are two North American plants from this family.

YouTube video

Nyjer Seed

Nyjer (Guizotia abyssinica)

Nyjer, Niger, or Nyger (Guizotia abyssinica) is a small, black seed from the Nyjer plant, which is native to Ethiopia and Malawi. The seed is not derived from a thistle plant.

YouTube video

**For clarity, I’ll be referring to Nyjer as “thistle seed” throughout this article since that is what it’s most commonly referred to in the birding world. **

Next Steps

Getting birds to eat thistle seed can be as simple as making a few adjustments in your yard. Some fixes are to change the seed you’re using, move your feeder, or hang a different feeder.

Consider whether your problem lies in the seed itself, the feeder, your yard environment, competition among other birds, or you just need to better acclimate the birds to the food. You may discover there are multiple reasons causing birds to abandon your yard.

If one solution doesn’t resolve the problem, try another.

Kaufman, K. & K. (2023, November). Ask the experts. Birds & Blooms Extra!, 48–48.

Comment below if you have suggestions to share.

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