The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) is the most common and widespread duck species in North America - and the rest of the planet. These familiar waterfowl occur across the United States, where they may be resident or migratory. Have you ever wondered what they eat?
Wild Mallards have a generalist diet and will take advantage of whatever food source is available. Their diverse diet includes animal and vegetable matter, with a preference for insects in the breeding season and grain in the non-breeding season.
Mallards feed most actively during the day, although they also feed after dark at times. These birds have adapted well to life around ponds and other water bodies in urban and suburban areas.
There, they will happily accept food and can even be attracted to feed at nearby homes. However, providing healthy, non-processed foods is essential for their health.
There’s much more to learn about the Mallard duck’s diet. Read along as we unpack the feeding and foraging habits of North America’s most common waterfowl.
A pair of Mallards foraging for food
Wild Mallards are omnivorous birds, which means they eat plant parts and small animals. Like other ducks, their flattened bill is a handy tool for managing various food items. However, their bill is not suited for tearing or crushing, and they rely on their muscular gizzard and swallowed grit to digest their food. Continue reading to learn what wild Mallards eat.
The Mallard's favorite food is probably aquatic insects. They will spend a lot of time searching for these protein-rich snacks, even when there aren’t many bugs around. However, when the wetlands freeze over in winter, they happily switch to a diet of energy-rich grains like corn.
Mallards eat many types of seeds, including those of wild grasses, weeds, and aquatic plants. They also eat nutlets and acorns. Cultivated plant seeds like rice and corn are also important in agricultural areas.
Mallards eat a variety of aquatic insect larvae, particularly in the spring and summer when these creatures are most active. They also eat other invertebrates, such as snails and other mollusks, and crustaceans like shrimp.
The following insects and their larvae are frequent prey items:
In addition to the insects and other invertebrates mentioned above, Mallards feed on the following small animals:
Male Mallard searching for food on the shoreline
Mallards are opportunistic and will accept whatever food source is available in their vicinity. They feed in and around freshwater bodies like ponds, lakes, and wetlands but will travel further for a meal when water sources freeze over and when on migration.
Keep reading for more fascinating facts about Mallard foraging behavior.
Domestic ducks need food at least two or three times a day, but wild Mallards will forage throughout the day since their food is less concentrated.
Most styles of bird feeders will not work for Mallards. However, they will happily eat from ground-level platform feeders or just as happily feed from the ground.
Mallards do most of their feeding during the day but also feed at night during the colder months. Then they may forage into the evening before returning to sleep near water.
Mallards search for insects and other small animals in shallow, vegetated water around the margins of lakes and in wetlands. They feed by dabbling or tipping themselves to reach the bottom or plants below the water’s surface. They usually do not dive.
Mallards have learned to feed on grain left behind after harvesting, and many rely on crop fields in the fall and winter. These birds forage and search for seeds on dry land.
Female Mallard searching for food in shallow water
The Mallard’s bill is an effective tool for foraging and feeding. The hooked tip of a Mallard's bill is known as the nail, and it in comes in handy for grasping prey like worms or pulling plants. Taking a look inside the bill reveals rows of lamellae. Ducks don’t have teeth, but these tooth-like structures are perfect for filtering smaller food particles.
Mallards focus on plant foods during the winter when insects and other animal life become scarce. Many American Mallards migrate in the spring and fall and stop to forage in farmland along the way.
Wild Mallards feed on the following wild and agricultural plants and grains:
Mallards switch to animal foods during the warmer breeding season when insect life and tadpoles become abundant.
Baby Mallards are precocial and ready to leave the nest within one day of hatching. The downy ducklings begin feeding immediately by pecking at anything that resembles food. They predominantly feed on small insects and other invertebrates that they catch from plants, the water’s surface, or snatch out of the air.
A pair of Mallard ducklings feeding on the shore of a lake
If you live near a pond, lake, or other freshwater body, there’s a good chance that Mallards might visit your yard to feed. Continue reading to learn how to attract them and what they can and cannot eat.
It is ok to feed Mallards, provided you stick to safe and healthy foods and limit the supply. In fact, many of the Mallards we see in urban ponds rely on us for food during the winter.
Feed Mallards seeds like rice and corn. Fruit and vegetables like peas, zucchini, broccoli, cabbage, and ripe tomatoes are also healthy food sources.
Although most people associate ducks with bread, this processed food is not very good for ducks and other birds because it has limited nutritional value. Avoid feeding ducks citrus fruits, spinach, and unripe tomatoes.
Mallards drink water only. They drink by dipping their bill into the water to fill it with water and then tipping their head back to swallow.
Mallard hen taking a drink of water
Putting out corn is a great way to attract Mallards if your property borders a pond or lake. These ducks are not typical backyard birds, so they are unlikely to visit most suburban yards. However, installing a pond is an interesting option if you have a large yard.
Mallards are beautiful and entertaining birds to have around. More importantly, they are a vital component of natural ecosystems and a benefit to many other species in their environment.
Outside of wilderness areas, their presence can be either negative or positive, depending on who you ask.
For example, ducks are great for pest control, and farmers in Southeast Asia have used them to manage crop-damaging insects in rice fields.
However, the Mallards themselves can be a pest in areas like the American Great Plains, where grains are grown.
Mallards don't usually dive underwater, but instead, dip their heads under - this is why you'll often seen them with their tails in the air
Mallards eat fish when they can. They are poorly equipped to hunt and catch fish, although they will not pass up the opportunity to snap up trapped, injured, or fresh dead fish.
Mallards will eat both adult frogs and tadpoles when available.
Acorns are a significant part of the Mallard diet in some areas, particularly during the non-breeding season. Researchers in Eastern Texas found that acorns form up to 99% of the Mallard diet in their study area.
Mallards eat minnows and other small fish when they can catch them. They simply swallow the small fish whole because their soft bills are useless for tearing the prey into smaller pieces.
Mallards will eat the seeds of the cattail plant (Typha latifolia), although it is not a favored food source.
Corn is a favorite food for Mallards. Domestic and feral Mallards will eat corn if provided, while wild migrating birds will feed on the waste from corn fields in farming areas.
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