The humble duck is a regular sight across the various waterways of the world. Ducks actually represent numerous species in the family Anatidae, which also includes other waterfowl like ducks and swans. Widely known for being one of the most gregarious and sociable of birds, ducks tend to hang out in large groups. Ducks often feed as a flock too, but what do ducks eat?
Ducks are omnivores and their diet is strongly influenced by what food is available in their aquatic habitats. They consume all manner of pondweed and aquatic plants as well as insects, molluscs, fish eggs and even small crustaceans, fish and amphibians such as frogs.
When observing ducks, it’s common to see them dunking their head below water, likely to catch an insect or other creature, or to rip and eat aquatic foliage. Ducks have flat, spatula-like bills which are excellent for stripping aquatic foliage. They have a soft serrated edge which allows them to sift and strain their food from the water and mud.
Because the term duck covers many different species of birds, it can vary between species as to what they like to eat. For example, mallards and pintails will mainly eat aquatic plants and vegetation, and mergansers eat fish mainly - this is because they have hooked, serrated bills that are ideal for this purpose.
Read on to discover more interesting facts about what ducks eat!
Feeding ducks at the park
Ducks are omnivorous foragers. They forage for whatever food they can find in their typically food-abundant aquatic habitats. Ducks will readily consume most types of foliage, both in the water and on land, including pondweed, freshwater seaweeds, reeds and flowers. Berries, seeds and grains are also readily consumed by ducks.
In terms of insects and other meat, ducks eat everything from aquatic insects like pond skaters and diving beetles to snails and other molluscs, shellfish and even small fish, fish eggs and amphibians. Frogspawn and tadpoles are amongst their favourite aquatic foods - ducks and frog spawning ponds do not mix as they’ll eat all the tadpoles!
Ducklings have the same diet as adult ducks but tend to eat more of the softer foods, including soft aquatic plants and algae, worms and tiny crustaceans and molluscs. In captivity, baby ducks are fed waterfowl feed but should also be provided with their own pond water to forage through.
Ducklings should also be provided with fine grit to help them digest food in their gizzards, but not until they’re around 2 weeks old.
Mallard ducklings eating in the water
Ducks are excellent aquatic foragers and will spend long periods of time sifting and straining pond water to pick up different types of tiny or microscopic insects, worms, crustaceans and other shellfish.
Their flat bills work as a sort of sieve, allowing them to strain pond water to retrieve the goodness. Ducks also consume most aquatic pond vegetation and will generally consume whatever is available in the pond at the time, including small fish, molluscs and amphibians.
Ducks do not just feed and forage on the water, but graze on the grass too. Ducks will eat the grass itself, as well as any and all types of insects, worms, molluscs such as slugs and snails and larvae. Their bills are multi-purpose and have reasonably sharp edges suitable for tearing light vegetation from the ground.
A Gadwall foraging in the grass
A duck’s winter diet is much the same as in summer, but since food is generally less abundant in the winter, ducks will be more inclined to eat whatever they can forage. Insects and small invertebrates provide the fat and protein required for ducks to survive the winter, but they’ll consume all manner of nutrient-rich foliage both in the water and on land.
Absolutely. Ducks are not fussy and have a steady diet of both insects and small animals as well as plant matter. Their digestive systems are aided by their gizzards, a specialised stomach that birds possess to help them grind down hard-to-digest foods. As such, ducks can eat pretty much anything with nutritional value in their natural habitat.
Mallards searching for food during the winter
Ducks aren’t natural hunters of fish, but they’ll readily consume any small fish they manage to scoop up with their broad bills. Whilst foraging for food in the water, ducks scoop up water from below the surface and sift through it for small creatures, including fish.
Most of these fish will be tiny - almost microscopic. If a duck was to catch a larger fish, though, it’d certainly try to eat it provided it can swallow it.
Whilst ducks would rarely come across adult frogs that they’re physically able to eat, they could certainly consume baby frogs and froglets that were recently tadpoles. Tadpoles are an ideal food for ducks as they’re easy to find in shallow waters and can be readily scooped up and swallowed.
A pair of Mandarin Ducks foraging together
Ducks will certainly eat bread. The issue with bread is not that it’s specifically bad for ducks and other birds, but that it’s nutritionally poor. Birds overfed on bread will likely not forage for the foods they really need.
Whilst it’s generally ok to feed ducks small quantities of bread, it’s generally dissuaded for this reason. Another point is that bread can go mouldy quickly and can blight the environment around which ducks and other wildlife make their habitats.
A Mallard duck eating bread
If you go down to your local park or pond, chances are you'll see people feeding bread to ducks. This is often an activity that includes children as it can be entertaining to them and also gets them interacting with nature - which helps teach respect and love to wild animals. Whilst ducks will happily take and eat the bread. It's not very good for them in the long term.
Although feeding bread to ducks isn't harmful itself, as they can digest it without no problems, the bread will provide no nutritious value and can leave ducks feeling full without getting the nutrients they need.
Prolonged feeding of just bread to ducks can lead to malnourishment and even them becoming overweight - this can have knock-on effects like deformed wings, which means the ducks cannot then fly. Any leftover bread that the ducks don't eat can often attract rats, which also can then contribute to diseases being spread.
It's ok to feed the occasional bit of bread to ducks, but if it can be avoided, please substitute for one of the options listed below. It's also recommended to avoid feeding ducks cereal, crackers, chips, sweets and mouldy food to ducks.
It's not recommended to feed mouldy bread to ducks, as it can lead to the ducks becoming unwell and, in some cases, can lead to things like lung disease. So please try and avoid feeding mouldy bread to ducks.
Two ducks diving for food together
Yes, ducks will readily consume ticks and are kept by poultry farmers as a bird that aids in farmyard tick control.
There are many other things you can feed ducks that they will enjoy just as much, and you'll be contributing to a better, healthier lifestyle for them.
Feeding ducks from your hand
When feeding ducks, it's best to feed in smaller amounts to avoid leaving piles of food around. Food is best given to ducks by scattering on the surface of the water instead of on land - this is because the food on the land exposes ducks to their predators, and being on the water is much safer for them.
Try and keep a good distance away and keep noise levels down - this will help not scare the ducks. Always ensure children are supervised when near the water.
Ducks will take food from your hand if they feel confident enough. If this is something you want to do, we suggest getting lower down to the ground and keeping calm and quiet, as any sudden movements and noise will scare the ducks.
Peking Duck eating grass
Worms provide one of the most fat and protein-rich meals available to ducks and many other birds, so yes, they absolutely eat worms, both in the water and on land.
Ducks will consume most grains and corn, either as sweetcorn, cracked or whole corn. Corn is often suggested as a nutritional alternative to bread when feeding both wild and domesticated ducks.
Mallard duck in flight
Duckweed, or Lemna, is a common aquatic plant that floats on the surface of ponds and other stagnant or slow-moving water. Ducks do eat it and are excellent at scooping it up in their spatula-like bill. Duckweed often shelters small insects and larvae too, making it ideal for foraging ducks.
Yes, ducks have gizzards which are specialised stomachs that help them digest certain foods. Ducks consume grit and tiny stones which sit in their gizzards as gastroliths. This grit helps them grind down hard-to-digest food. Birds have gizzards because they have no teeth and swallow their food whole rather than chewing it.
A mallard drinking water from a river
Ducks drink water, like all other species of birds. Water is crucial for ducks as it helps them maintain a good condition for their plumage as well as keeping both their eyes and nostrils clean. Ducks tend to drink around 1 litre of water per day, which can mean they sometimes drink twice their weight in a day!
Wild ducks will generally drink water from ponds, lakes and puddles. This is why it is crucial to maintain clean water sources, ensuring they have a fresh supply to drink.
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