Wood ducks are one of the most colorful North American waterfowl, and despite their numbers declining hugely in the 19th-century, their populations have rebounded. These medium-sized perching ducks belong to the large waterbird family Anatidae and inhabit freshwater marshes, lakes, and swamps, but what do Wood ducks eat?
Wood ducks are flexible omnivores and consume a huge range of seasonally available food. Most of their diet consists of aquatic plant matter, acorns, wheat, waterlily, sedge, and berries of various kinds. They also eat invertebrates, including beetles, snails, bugs, and flies. Wood duck diets vary with region, season, and reproductive status.
These colorful ducks are much more common than they once were, and their diets are very similar to most other perching and dabbling ducks. While conventional wisdom suggests they take most of their food from the water, they regularly forage on dry land too.
Overall, Wood ducks aren’t particularly fussy with their diet and consume many seasonally available nutritious foods. But, of course, there is still much more to learn, so read on to discover more facts about the diets and foraging behaviors of this water bird!
Wood Ducks, also known as Carolina Ducks, usually get most of their food whilst on the water
Wood ducks eat a huge range of plant foods, which make up the majority of their diet. In addition to aquatic plants, Wood ducks consume seeds, nuts, acorns, and berries that fall from trees.
They also venture onto dry land to eat seeds, wheat, and other grains. In the Mississippi Valley and neighboring states, Wood ducks feed on waste wheat, corn, and rice.
In spring and summer, consumption of animal and invertebrate food rises. Females and breeding males also eat more invertebrates than non-breeding males. This is because invertebrates are high in fats and energy, which are essential during the breeding season.
A male Wood Duck foraging for food on the ground
Wood ducks are rarely kept in captivity, but thrive on a primarily-herbivorous diet.
Seeds, nuts, dark leafy greens, and fruits should be plenty to sustain a healthy Wood duck. In addition, insect foods are required while Wood ducks are breeding, as the chicks mainly eat insects for their first 2 to 3 weeks.
Wood ducks dabble on the water and poke around on dry land for much of the day.
These generally peaceful ducks have a pretty slow pace of life and won’t usually struggle to get all the food they require from their local habitat. Like many ducks, they graze for most of the day rather than designating a specific time for foraging.
Female (left) and male (right) wood ducks swimming on the lake
While Wood ducks spend much of their time floating about the water and foraging food from the surface or just underneath the surface, they also forage on dry land.
Wood ducks usually feed on the water by gripping foliage or scooping up floating food from the surface. They also dive short distances, up to 1m in rare cases.
On dry land, Wood ducks poke at the undergrowth with their narrow bills. They swallow food whole and have an extremely flexible and distensible esophagus which enables them to swallow large solid food items, such as acorns. They can also fit a huge amount of food in their gullet - one Wood duck’s esophagus was dissected to reveal around 30 tiny acorns!
A male Wood Duck in flight
As diurnal birds, Wood ducks feed throughout the day. Therefore, wood ducks don’t really have any specific designated foraging time - they simply graze throughout much of the day.
They likely spend a good proportion of their day feeding and grazing. Wood ducks are pretty slow and patient birds - they’ll happily float and graze while feeding for hours on end!
In the winter, Wood ducks feed almost solely on acorns, aquatic plants, and grains. Insects become less abundant in water, so Wood ducks have to increase their intake of nutritious plant foods.
Wood duck diets vary seasonally, and they generally eat more animal and invertebrate foods in the spring and summer. Invertebrates are more abundant in warmer weather, and help provide the energy required to sustain the birds throughout the busy breeding season.
In winter, Wood ducks rely on plant foods, as insects are less abundant
In the spring and summer, Wood ducks eat more invertebrates than they do in the winter (roughly 10 to 14% in the spring vs. just 4% in the winter).
This is because invertebrates are more abundant in the warmer weather, and breeding Wood ducks require a high-energy diet to sustain themselves and their chicks. Also, Wood ducks feed their young with softer foods, including invertebrates, which provide them with the energy and fat they need to grow quickly. Baby Wood ducks are unable to digest harder foods like seeds and acorns.
Baby Wood ducks primarily eat invertebrates, mainly dragonflies and damselflies, bugs, beetles, and other flies. They feed themselves by following their parents and learning through trial and error.
Invertebrates make up the mainstay of their diet for around two to three weeks, at which point they’ll begin to eat harder foods like seeds, grains, and plant matter. The ducklings are free-roaming and tend to disperse around their local habitat, feeding themselves after just days.
Unlike many ducks, Wood ducks often form strong pair bonds that may last for more than one season.
Close up of a Wood duck chick
Wood ducks will eat practically anything, but cracked corn, wheat, barley, oats, Milo seed, and bird seeds are all great choices.
While wholemeal or granary bread is fine, avoid feeding Wood ducks with plain white bread (or any other bird for that matter). It isn’t toxic, but it’s not particularly nutritious either.
Like practically all birds, Wood ducks drink water and solely water. They likely get most of their water needs from food.
Ducks need clean water to drink and bathe themselves in, so they might head to a nearby freshwater lake or stream if their marshy or swampy habitat can’t provide that.
Carolina Wood Duck drinking some water
To attract Wood ducks from a nearby pond, lake, or other body of water, provide grains, seeds, and vegetable matter. Wood ducks will happily venture onto dry land to feed and they’re a big fan of grain and seeds.
Wood ducks prefer to remain undercover when foraging, so any shrubs or tall trees will help. Wood ducks also need clean water to drink, so you can provide them with a buck or bowel of fresh water.
Wood ducks are omnivores, but only around 15% of their diet consists of animal foods, mostly in the form of invertebrates.
Wood ducks are sometimes said to be herbivorous, but this isn't correct. Wood duck chicks rely on insects, which make up most of their diet for at least 2 to 3 weeks. This is because they’re unable to digest harder seeds and grains.
Close up portrait of a Wood Duck
Wood ducks have been observed eating the occasional small fish. Wood ducks are omnivores, and they aren’t overly fussy with what they eat, though they do eat mostly plants.
Wood ducks often visit farms to eat fallen corn leftover from harvest. They’re avid grain-eaters.
This photograph from wildlife photographer Bill Golden is unequivocal evidence that Wood ducks can indeed eat frogs! However, this is likely rare.
So long as they can feasibly swallow a crayfish, then yes, Wood ducks do eat crayfish. Crayfish are freshwater crustaceans that Wood ducks are likely to come across in their day-to-day lives.
Female Wood Duck perched on a branch
Acorns are a major feature of Wood ducks’ diets. In the winter, acorns may make up the majority of a Wood duck’s diet. They swallow acorns whole and can store up to 30 in their esophagus at any one time.
Minnows are small fish, so yes, Wood ducks may eat minnows. However, this would be pretty rare.
Duckweed, perhaps unsurprisingly, is consumed by many ducks, including Wood ducks.
Wood ducks do eat wild rice. Along the Mississippi River, Wood ducks often venture into farms to eat agricultural rice too. Their diet consists mainly of plant foods, including many seeds, plants, and grains.
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