5 Reasons Birds Aren’t Eating Your Thistle Seed and How to Address Them

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 thistle seed for one or more of these common reasons:

  1. Poor seed quality
  2. Feeder issues
  3. Environmental factors
  4. Competition
  5. Food preferences.

I’ve found that the best way to get birds to eat thistle is to address the issue head-on.

Use better seeds to get them interested, install different feeders to reduce competition, fix the environmental issues in your yard, or better acclimate the birds to the thistle.

Stick with me because I’m going to explain exactly why the birds may be avoiding your thistle. Better yet, I provide 4 proven and actional strategies that will have them flocking back to devour your thistle seed!

I’ve been attracting birds to my yard since 1999 and have probably seen thousands of thistle seed lovers in my yard. They keep coming back for more so please allow me to share my secrets with you.

Let’s go!

Thistle Seed Bird Preference

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Birds that Prefer Thistle Seed

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 thistle seed:

Birds that won’t eat thistle seed

Not all birds are attracted to thistle. 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:

If you’re interested in attracting these species, putting out fruit will be a much better option! As you can see below, Orioles will come and enjoy something like an orange if you put it out for them.

Thistle Seed vs. Nyjer: What’s the difference?

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

What we generically refer to as thistle seed is actually Nyjer (Guizotia abyssinica). It appears Nyjer took on this name because of its similarity to wild thistle seed – commonly eaten in the wild by finches and other animals.

Let’s further clarify….

Thistle Seed

Field thistle (Cirsium discolor)

True thistle seed comes from plants in the thistle family. Field thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense) are two North American plants from the thistle family.

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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.

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**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. **

5 Common Reasons Birds Might Avoid Thistle Seeds

The first step to getting birds to eat your thistle 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. Poor seed quality
  2. Feeder issues
  3. Environmental factors
  4. Competition
  5. Food preferences.

Consider which of these problems are making birds avoid thistle seed in your yard. From here you can find a solution that’s right for you. Let’s better understand why each reason can cause birds to turn up their beaks at your seed.

1. Poor Seed Quality

First, consider how fresh your seed is. If you’re putting out year-old seed it won’t be very attractive to birds.

Birds will most likely avoid any seed that’s gone bad. So, check your seed to make sure it isn’t moldy, or infested by pests.

2. Feeder Issues

Because thistle seeds are so tiny, they’re only compatible with certain feeders. Thistle seeds can fall through large gaps in a feeder. But, even if you have it in a compatible feeder, it may not be right for the bird you’re trying to attract.

If your feeder is in a high-traffic area, small birds are likely to steer clear. Also, dirty feeders will repel birds as much as dirty seeds. So, even the highest-quality seed will go untouched if it’s coming from a filthy feeder.

3. Environmental Factors

When there’s plenty of seed naturally available, thistle seed 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 likely to keep small birds away. **

4. Competition

Because thistle 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!

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

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 thistle.

4 Proven Strategies to Make Your Thistle Irresistible

1. Improve Seed Quality

Start by buying better seeds. Especially if you’re putting out thistle 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, and pest-free. When filling your feeders, be sure to double-check for mold and pests as well.

Birds can get sick from bad seeds, so throw out any thistle seed that has gone bad or has been infected by pests.

Recently I’ve been experimenting with seed cylinders. The Finch Favorite Birdseed Cylinder from JC’s Wildlife contains Niger seed (thistle) and sunflower chips. The finches in my yard seem to love it!

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

2. Feeder Adjustments

Thistle 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/Thistle Socks

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.

3. Address Environmental and Competitive Factors

As mentioned above, location can be a major reason small birds aren’t eating your thistle seed. 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 seeds? If so, you may be confusing the birds in your backyard.

Consider slowly adding more and more thistle to a seed mix the birds are already used to. Or, buy a premade mix that includes thistle 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. Use code ONTHEFEEDER for 10% off your first order!

If you want a wide variety of species in your yard, it’s a good idea to offer plenty of different seeds. There’s no denying thistle seed is great for attracting finches. But, if you want a ton of unique species, offer a wide variety of food.

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 thistle 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 thistle. You may discover here are multiple reasons causing birds to abandon your yard.

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

Any questions or concerns? Let me know in the comments below!

More than 25 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers. Read more about Tammy