I have just filled a bird feeder up with nyger seed in the hope that it will draw some redpolls into the garden. This small black seed is so fine that it requires a special feeder, one with tiny feeding ports, otherwise the seed would pour from the feeder like water. Because the seed is so fine it only really suits certain birds, those with small or narrow bills that come to a delicate point; included among these are Goldfinch, Siskin and Lesser Redpoll.
Funnily enough, I have never succeeded in getting my visiting Goldfinches to feed on the nyger unless it is the only thing on offer in the garden; they much prefer the sunflower hearts and mixed seed. While others have reported a similar pattern, there are gardens where the addition of a nyger feeder has delivered feeding Goldfinch for the first time. I have a suspicion that it is not their preferred food because so often it seems to be the young birds that end up on the nyger feeders, while the adult Goldfinches dominate those containing sunflower hearts. This is why I only use it during the late winter months, when it is likely to be used by some seasonal visitors.
Where the nyger seed does work, however, is in attracting Lesser Redpolls. These delightful little birds are very much winter visitors to garden feeding stations, the numbers using feeders increasing noticeably over the last three winters. Lesser Redpoll is a bird of pioneer woodland, those scrubby birch and alder woodlands characteristic of poor soils. Pressures on this habitat may be one reason why the species has undergone a significant population decline since the 1970s, prompting placement on the list of UK Biodiversity Action Plan species, but there have also be declines in breeding success and survival.
It is encouraging to see Lesser Redpolls coming into gardens in increased numbers to feed on nyger. Several researchers have suggested that the ‘discovery’ of nyger by the redpolls may help the population to recover. The availability of seed at garden feeding stations during the difficult winter months may improve overwinter survival and help take more birds through into the following breeding season. While many farmland finches underwent population declines during the 1970s and 1980s, we saw Goldfinches turn to garden feeding stations to a greater degree than others species and this may have contributed to the buoyant Goldfinch population that we see today.
Looking at the pattern of garden use by Lesser Redpolls, the main movement into gardens takes place during January and February, so it is not too late for you to purchase some nyger seed and a feeder, and to attract some of these great little birds into your garden.