Ducks are diverse and fascinating wildfowl that occur on every continent except Antarctica. American birdwatchers are blessed with well over thirty native species, and with about twenty species in the UK, there’s no shortage there either!
Understanding their diet is not only interesting but also helps poultry keepers feed their birds a healthy diet and guides conservationists who protect the various species and their habitats.
It’s not uncommon to spot several duck species together on the same pond or wetland, all feeding in harmony. Have you ever wondered what these graceful birds eat and how they are specialized to access their food?
Read along with us to learn everything you need to know about what ducks eat.
The Black-bellied Whistling Duck likes to forage on seeds
Wild ducks are naturally omnivorous, feeding on both plants and animals. They find most of their food in and around the water, although some species will forage in agricultural fields and even suburban areas.
Different species have different diets and foraging methods, ranging from filter feeding to grazing outside on dry land or pursuing small creatures at the bottom in deeper waters. This allows multiple duck species to live side by side without competing with each other.
Continue reading to learn about the major food sources for wild ducks.
An American Wigeon Duck feeding on aquatic plants in a pond
Aquatic plants are an essential food source for ducks. Dabbling ducks feed on algae and floating vegetation or upend to feed on plants beneath the surface. Diving ducks can also swim down to feed on rooted plants growing deeper in the water column.
Wild ducks don’t only feed on water plants. They will also graze on grass, feed on berries, or snack on roots and tubers growing near their watery habitat.
Ducks feed on a variety of invertebrates and sometimes even small frogs and fish. They may find their prey amongst vegetation, snatch drowned prey from the surface, or search for small animals among the rocks and plants at the bottom.
Typical duck prey items:
Seeds from wild grasses and plants are essential in the duck diet, particularly in the winter when animal foods are scarce. Migrating and overwintering birds often feed on the seeds of cultivated plants like rice, wheat, and corn.
A Velvet Scoter feeding on a freshwater mussel
Ducks are a common sight in parks and ponds in urban and suburban habitats. Mallards are particularly at home in these semi-natural environments, although they may rely entirely on human handouts in some areas. This is particularly true in the winter when they switch to a vegetarian diet.
A study comparing urban and wild Mallards in New Zealand found little evidence of poor health in urban birds with unnatural diets, although they did have smaller breast muscles than their wild counterparts.
Mallard Duck female (right) and Male (left) in their natural habitat
Whether in the park or their own backyard, feeding birds is a very enriching activity enjoyed by people all over the world. Feeding wild and feral ducks has both pros and cons, and it’s generally better to avoid this practice.
However, providing the occasional healthy treat for the ducks at your local pond will cause little harm if done in moderation.
Continue reading for some suggestions on how to feed ducks responsibly.
Northern Shoveler Ducks Male (back) and Female (front) foraging on a pond
When it comes to feeding ducks, too much of a good thing can definitely be harmful. It’s best to feed ducks small amounts of food at irregular intervals to prevent unhealthy consequences like overcrowding, spreading of disease, and dependence on an unnatural food source.
Never dump large amounts of food as it may spoil and become moldy and unhealthy for the birds. It’s also better to feed them over a clean surface or in the water than to spread food on the floor where there may be duck droppings and other harmful substances.
Healthy foods to feed ducks:
Foods to avoid:
The following foods are toxic or unhealthy for ducks and should be avoided.
Most people automatically associate urban ducks with bread, but this common human food is no good for our feathered friends. Bread is not toxic, per se, but it provides too many calories and not enough nutrition.
Eating too much bread is thought to cause a serious condition known as ‘Angel Wing,’ which can result in flightlessness and even death.
A Pacific Black Duck feeding on watermelon
Ducks’ diets change as they mature from hatchlings to juveniles and then adults. After hatching, baby ducks can survive for their first day on their yolk reserves but feed themselves after that.
Wild Mallard ducklings, for example, feed primarily on insects and other small invertebrates for their first month. They find their own food on the water’s surface, on plants, or by snatching flying insects from the air. Their diet begins to incorporate more and more plant material and seeds in their second month, and by the age of 6 weeks, they are primarily vegetarian.
Avoid feeding wild ducklings since they are much better off hunting for natural prey like insects. Bread and other human foods may be particularly harmful to young birds.
Domestic ducklings should not be fed the same diet as adults. The College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University recommends a duck starter crumble for their first three weeks and then a grower food with a protein content of about 15% until they are five months old. After that, they can be fed a quality adult pellet and mixed grain.
A wild duckling looking for food on the water's surface
While we can pick out almost any food we want at the store regardless of season, ducks must shift their diet as different food sources become available. Continue reading to learn more about the duck’s changing diet.
Spring and summer are times of plenty for ducks. Bright sunshine and warming weather encourage rapid plant growth in and out of the water. Insects and other invertebrates flourish, and frogs and fish lay their eggs.
This is the ideal time for ducks to produce their own young since the abundant animal life provides a rich supply of protein-packed foods for both the mother and her ducklings.
As the days grow shorter and colder, many duck species migrate south to escape the coming ice and snow. Even at lower latitudes, insect life and green plant growth become scarce, and ducks must change their diet to survive. Omnivorous ducks become mostly vegetarian in the fall and winter, focusing on plant foods like seeds, grain, acorns, and tubers.
The Australian Wood Duck prefers to forage in grasslands and flooded pastures and is rarely seen on open water
Ducks need a balanced diet to remain healthy, breed successfully, and live to their full potential lifespan. Wild birds are able to source all they need by foraging for their naturally balanced diet, but domestic birds without high-quality commercial foods are likely to suffer both in size and egg production.
Apart from energy in the form of calories, ducks require proteins and essential amino acids, fats, and various vitamins and minerals. Laying hens also need sufficient calcium in their food to produce healthy eggs.
A female Gadwall feeding on water vegetation in a wetland nature reserve
The best way to ensure that local ducks in your community enjoy a healthy diet is to protect their habitat and natural food sources. Get involved in local clean-ups and volunteer conservation initiatives to keep local waterways pristine and litter-free.
Remember, a lively pond with plenty of natural vegetation is always better than a sterile water feature.
Chatting with well-meaning community members about healthy duck-feeding practices is also a great idea. You could even carry a little extra food with you if you plan on feeding ducks and hand it out to people who are getting ready to toss in some bread. Signage and social media are also great ways to get your message out.
A flock of Mallards resting on the bank near to the water
Ducks have evolved to exploit a variety of different food sources, both out in their natural habitats and even in the altered urban landscape. From deep diving to shallow dabbling, each species has managed to carve out its niche without excluding the other waterfowl that share its habitats.
Watching wild waterfowl feed is a fascinating experience, especially when dabbling, diving, and straining ducks are seen foraging side by side. Feeding tame ducks can also be a wonderful experience, but please provide only a healthy, balanced diet for our feathered friends!
Female Wood Duck swimming with her ducklings on a pond
Bread is not a healthy natural food source for ducks, especially for young birds that are still growing and developing. Leafy greens are a much better option for feeding ducks at your local pond.
Surviving outdoors in winter may be impossible for us, but wild ducks are perfectly adapted for life in every season. Provided your local ducks have healthy natural food sources available, they probably don’t need any help at all.
If you would like to feed tame ducks down at a local park, provide healthy grains and seeds like corn, rice, and sunflower seeds in moderation.
A female Mallard Duck foraging for food during the winter
Finding a sick or injured animal is always distressing, and it’s only natural to want to help. However, caring for distressed wildlife is difficult and requires expert knowledge and often legal permission. It’s best to contact a local wildlife rehabilitator for advice before attempting to interfere. Try to stay nearby so that you can direct authorized rehabilitators to find and assist the duck.
Tame ducks will eat dried cat and dog food, although it is not a natural or healthy diet for these omnivorous birds. A very small amount in moderation may do no harm, but it’s best to stick with natural foods like seeds and vegetables for wild ducks and prepared commercial foods for domestic ducks.
Two Pintail Ducks foraging side by side from the bottom of a marsh lake
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