those little black seeds

March 14, 2005

in Silly stuff and bluster

Remember when those tiny, slim, black seeds you used to feed goldfinch were called thistle seeds?  They are actually from a plant called Guizotia abyssinica (pretty gold flowers that look like our wild sunflowers, Helianthus sp.)  The seeds of G. abyssinica do resemble seeds from true thistles, Cirsium sp.  Thistles (prickly leaves, tufty purple flowers) can be really annoying, painful to pull, and invasive if they sprout.

Apparently, the bird seed industry did not like their seed, Guizotia abyssinica (which, by the way, is a crop primarily grown for the oil produced by pressing the seeds), being associated with noxious thistles.  Okay, I can understand that.  A bit of a P.R. problem. So they started calling it by its more common name, niger seed.  Mostly it’s grown in Africa, so perhaps it was named for the Niger River. presumably by Africans themselves.  Then the Wild Bird Feeding Industry, a trade organization, had a spasm of political correctness. It decided to change the name of the seed to Nyger, and trademark it, in order to "eliminate product confusion and the offensive mispronounciation of the word ‘niger’."

You must be #?*^$ me! Did the industry really face so much flak that they needed to make this stunningly fatuous move?  Was there really anybody so stupid as to call Those Little Black Seeds "nigger" seed?  Did anybody who heard them do so actually become seriously offended? 

There are all sorts of rules associated with the trademarked word Nyger (in which my use here is in bold violation of them all).  But many people have jumped on the P.C. bandwagon, and use the term Nyger like Kleenex. I see this word used routinely on bird-related listservs, in magazines, etc., although legally Nyger cannot be used as a generic term for niger/thistle/Guizotia seed. Mere mortals must either say "niger seed", risking violating someone’s civil rights via sloppy pronounciation, or refer to it as "thistle seed", thereby annoucing to the world their botanical ignorance.  A quote by Oscar Wilde comes to mind: Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing, it is always from the noblest motives.


Jenn April 2, 2005 at 11:17 pm

This has always driven me crazy as well. Most people still think it is thistle seed anyway. For that you can probably thank that famous artwork with the goldfinches perched on the bull thistle heads.

Guizotia is actually considered a weed in some regions. Though Nyger seed is one of two types of bird seed that the U.S. requires to be sterilized (the other being hemp), I have seen it sprout up.

Glenn Page April 20, 2005 at 8:56 pm

The wild bird feeding institute has not trademarked nyger, they tradmarked nyjer.

I do not believe niger is considered a weed anywhere. In India a plant explorer tean had a difficult time finding niger outside of cultivated fields. The reason niger is sterilized is not because of the niger, but because many very serious noxious weeds are coming in with the seed. Indeed the sterilization process has been far from perfect.

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