My grandmother used to take me to feed bread to the ducks at a lake near her home. Through the years, I learned about animal husbandry and a great deal more on the nutrition of the various animals we have kept.
I think the bread is the best place to start with when talking about feeding ducks. Well, bread is a NEVER EVER EVER food for ducks. It is the one thing most of us were raised to associate with ‘feeding’ ducks.
But it has no nutritional value and fills the duck’s bellies to the point that they do not eat anything else that has nutritional value. Ducks only eat until they are full, they therefore will not go and look for nutritious food if they are full of bread. The ducks end up sick or dying from malnutrition.
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So, what should we feed ducks?
The answer is really not that complicated. Keep their food as close as possible to what they would eat if they were a wild flock searching for food for themselves.
I am going to give you the knowledge you need to keep your flock healthy all year round.
What do Ducks Eat in the Wild?
Wild ducks are very capable of looking after themselves without human intervention. Many are permanent, all year round, residents at urban parks and dams.
These wild ducks often come waddling every time a person arrives who they recognize as having fed them before. This is not because they are close to death because there is nothing to eat. It is because ducks are very intelligent and associate people’s faces with previous experiences.
If a new face appears, the ducks will check them out by going closer and waiting to see if these new faces will give them something tasty to eat or not. If no food is offered, they will move along and they will ignore that person if they return to the area at a later date.
Without people to feed them, ducks will forage on land and in the water for food. Their diets consist of worms, grubs, small fish, seeds, insects, water weeds and grasses, plants, berries, mollusks, and whatever grains, fruit, and vegetables they can find.
Feeding Your Ducks A Healthy, Balanced Diet
Before I even get into the actual food part of this article, I want to emphasize how important it is that your ducks and ducklings have access to clean, well aerated water with their food. Ducks need water to digest their food. They are also very vulnerable to waterborne diseases; therefore, the water and bowls should always be clean.
Because ducks are omnivores, it is important to give them well-balanced diet of grains, plants, and meat in the form of worms, fish, and insects.
Because it is of the utmost importance to feed your ducks a healthy, balanced diet, you should always offer a duck (or waterfowl) crumbled mix consisting of seeds and pellets. Your local feed store or vet shop will order for you if you cannot find any in your area.
Chicken or parrot food work well if you cannot find waterfowl food, but remember to balance this out with plenty of fresh products from the lists below.
After they have eaten their crumbled mix, they can be offered a variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, and even cooked pasta. But these extras should be no more than 10% of the duck’s daily intake.
Ducks eat until they feel full ,and then move on. If they have access to the goodies, they will not eat what their bodies need to survive.
There are many things you can plant for your ducks (some are easier to grow than others). You can even plant them inside your duck pen for the ducks to forage for themselves. Remember that whatever they would find in the wild they would not need you to shell, cook, or cut into little soldiers.
They only need help with fruit and vegetables; these may need to be cooked and should be cut into small, manageable pieces.
This is what you can grow in your yard or pen for good, nutritionally valuable duck food:
- ☑ Birdseed (any type or mix)
- ☑ Alfalfa
- ☑ Chard Cilantro
- ☑ Basil
- ☑ Oregano
- ☑ Parsnips
- ☑ Thyme
- ☑ Rosemary
- ☑ Squash blossoms
- ☑ Roses
- ☑ Violets
- ☑ Sunflowers
- ☑ Sunflower seeds
- ☑ Pansies
- ☑ Dandelions
- ☑ Bamboo shoots
- ☑ Kale
- ☑ Marigolds
- ☑ Peppermint
- ☑ Melons (you will need to open the melon when it is ripe)
- ☑ Sage
- ☑ Clover
- ☑ Tomatoes (I prefer cherry tomatoes, but all ripe tomatoes will work)
- ☑ Nasturtium
- ☑ Algae
Your ducks will also need a lot of proteins daily for healthy bodies. In the wild, they would catch a lot of insects, dig up worms, or even go fishing.
These are good sources of protein to feed your ducks (dead or alive), and can be added to the pen, pond, feed, or bath:
- ☑ Mealworms (fresh or dried)
- ☑ Worms
- ☑ Fish eggs
- ☑ Earthworms
- ☑ Crickets
- ☑ Crustaceans
- ☑ Frogs
- ☑ Tadpoles
- ☑ Crawdads
- ☑ Flies
- ☑ Feeder fish – guppies, goldfish, minnows
- ☑ Grubs
- ☑ Snails
- ☑ Mosquito larvae
- ☑ Mosquitos
- ☑ Spiders
- ☑ Wasps
- ☑ Salamanders
- ☑ Newts
- ☑ Snails
- ☑ Slugs
- ☑ Mollusks
Ducks love a variety of flavors, but the taste is just a part of why you should feed your ducks fresh fruit and vegetables. All fruit and vegetables contain vital vitamins that will help keep your ducks healthy, with strong bones and strong organs.
Some fruit and vegetables are not healthy for ducks. In the wild, ducks would just ignore these; in your pen, they will ingest anything you put down. It is important to know what is safe and what is not safe.
It is also important to note that fruit and vegetables should never be the only thing you feed your ducks. I recommend no more than 10% of their daily intake should be fruit and vegetables. They need their proteins, grass, grains, and seeds more than they need fruit and vegetables.
Remember to cut all fruit and vegetables into small, manageable portions. Melons and squashes are the exception to this rule. These can be halved or quartered and set down just like that. The goofiest duck is a duck with a watermelon; they are adorable to watch.
These are the fruits and vegetables your duck can eat (cut them into small pieces or mash them, they are good raw or cooked):
- Peaches (remove the pips before you give these to your ducks; if the fruit is large, cut it into smaller pieces)
- Cherries (seedless)
- Apples (cut into small pieces and with the pips removed)
- Grapes (halved or quartered)
- Hot peppers
- Plums (remove the pips before you give these to your ducks; if the fruit is large, cut it into smaller pieces)
- Pears (cut into small pieces and with the pips removed)
- Carrots (diced or sliced)
- Pineapple (just the yellow inside part of the fruit)
- Lettuce (do not feed them iceberg lettuce)
- Beans – properly cooked
- Sweet potato
- Lemon balm
- Mung beans
There are plenty of items in your pantry that you can also add to your duck’s diet. If you find that your kids are opening a new box of cereal when there are still crumbs in the bottom of the previous box, they will probably complain that it is yucky to eat the powdered leftovers.
Instead of punishing your poor, innocent, darlings, add the dregs of your cereal and grains to your duck’s food. They all have nourishment that will help your ducks thrive.
These are things from your kitchen that your ducks will love:
- ☑ Cornflakes
- ☑ Cheerios
- ☑ Whole wheat (cooked)
- ☑ Millet
- ☑ Quinoa
- ☑ Wheat berry
- ☑ Un-sugared cereal
- ☑ Puffed rice
- ☑ Wheat, barley, or similar grains
- ☑ Oats (uncooked; rolled or quick)
- ☑ Rice (plain white or brown, cooked or uncooked, whole or instant)
- ☑ Milo seed
- ☑ Nut hearts or pieces (any type but without salt, coatings, or flavoring)
- ☑ Vegetable trimmings or peels (chopped into small pieces)
- ☑ Bok choy
- ☑ Eggs (scrambled)
- ☑ Ground eggshells
- ☑ Leftover cooked fish
- ☑ Leftover cooked meat (chopped into very small pieces)
- ☑ Pasta
- ☑ Lobster shells
- ☑ Shrimp shells
Feeding Drakes (Males)
Because drakes do not lay eggs, their nutritional needs are different to the needs of laying ducks.
When you purchase feed for your ducks, you will find the feed is divided into 3 categories:
- General / maintenance feed (14% protein)
- Laying duck feed (16 to 17% protein)
- Duckling feed (starter feed is 20 to 24% protein; growing feed is 14 to 18% protein)
Drakes only need 14% protein in their diet. Drakes are to be fed maintenance feed as they do not require as much protein as laying ducks.
Feeding Laying Ducks (Females)
When ducks are not laying (usually in fall), they do not need high protein levels. Protein and high levels of calcium are needed for strong bones and strong shells.
Laying ducks require more protein and calcium in their diet than drakes. For layer ducks, it is essential that you supply good quality layer or breeder food. Their food should be 16 to 17% protein and high in calcium.
Feeding Ducklings and Adolescent Ducks
On to the cutest family members, ducklings have a very different diet compared to adult ducks.
While with your adult ducks, feeding them once in the morning and once in the afternoon is sufficient, in the first 8 weeks of their lives, ducklings will need access to food and water 24 hours a day. They digest food much quicker than adults. You should be checking on them at least 3 times a day to make sure they have access to both.
Their diet should always be high in proteins and calories. Your starter feed should be 18 to 20% protein. Be wary of the food and inspect it for big chunks of pellets. The pellets should be ⅛” in size to make it easy to digest without choking.
It is easier for ducklings to digest food that has been mashed (with water) than dry food. However, you will have to replace the food regularly throughout the day as wet food goes sour when exposed to heat and air – and do not forget to wash the bowls to get rid of the sour food or the fresh food will sour much quicker if it comes into contact with that rotten layer in the bowl.
When you buy your ducklings food, you will find 2 types of duckling food: starter and grower. Starter is higher in protein (20 to 24%) than grower (14 to 18%). Obviously, starter is where you start. This food should be fed for the first 2 to 3 weeks.
Do not keep your ducklings on starter for more than 3 weeks; the elevated protein can cause angel wings (a condition in which the wing cannot touch or lie naturally against the bird’s side). After that, switch to grower food.
From 4 to 13 weeks, you should switch them to maintenance feed with 14% protein.
When your ducks are 14 weeks old, the drakes will stay on the maintenance feed while the ducks will need to progress to laying food.
Make sure that the food you give your ducklings contains niacin (vitamin B3). If you are using chick food, your food will not contain niacin. You will have to provide it. You can do this by adding ½ cup of brewer’s yeast per 10 pounds of feed – roughly 5% of the feed. But make sure it is properly mixed in evenly through all the food.
If you are using chick feed, make sure that it is unmedicated.
Whenever possible, let your ducklings out in a well-protected area to forage on grass. This also gives them the opportunity to collect grit for digestion.
How do ducks chew?
An interesting question… ducks use small stones, rocks, and dirt to grind their food and make it digestible. If your ducks do not have access to these, you will need to supply them with grits.
If you feed your laying ducks high quality feed, you will not need to supply grits. Crushed oyster shells or eggshells work very well as grits (you should probably make friends with the owners and managers of local seafood restaurants to get these and other items for free).
How to Feed Your Ducks
You should always feed your ducks in clean rectangular bowls that your ducks can congregate around. It is best to use more than one bowl so that they can all eat at the same time.
Do not feed your ducks in large containers where one or more ducks will have to climb in to get to the food in the middle.
If you are feeding frozen treats, they should always be given in water.
If you are feeding feeder fish, frogs, mosquito larvae, or anything else that would normally be found in water, feed it in water. As awful as this feels, feeding live animals is always the best. Add fish to their pond or bathtub. Or use half of a kiddie’s “shell” pool for water yummies.
Worms, insects, grubs, snails, etc. can all be added to the regular food. But make sure that the bowl is clear before you add the next feed.
The best way to serve insects, worms, crabs, etc. is the way nature intended. Toss out some bugs in the pen and let the ducks find them on their own. If the ducks are free to roam, this is how they find them.
Treating Your Ducks
Treating your ducks to tasty morsels can be a lot of fun, however, it is important that your ducks are not given too many treats. If they fill up on treats, they will not be interested in any of the healthy items their bodies need to thrive.
Treats should not take up more than 5 to 10% of your duck’s diet. When you are giving treats, do not give them their normal portion of fruit or vegetables, the treats constitute the 10% daily allowance).
- Icicles made of fruit, vegetables, water, or fruit juice
- Cottage cheese (add fresh or dried herbs to plain cottage cheese)
- Plain yogurt (you can add vegetables or fruit)
- Milk (low fat or fat free)
- Frozen peas or corn; anything frozen can be tossed in their water or their pond, it will float, which means your ducks will have to use their natural brains and coordination
- Ducks love leftover flapjacks, pancakes, or waffles; smear some mashed banana on a pancake and watch it disappear
- Cooked pasta
- In winter, make soup for your ducks by finely grating vegetables, grass, or weeds and placing them in warm water for your ducks
- Cook some spaghetti and add diced tomato, basil, and thyme
- Crush hardboiled eggs and add them to leftover rice, you can add all kinds of extras to this to make it tastier
- Make your own frozen yogurt by adding fruit to plain yogurt and freezing it
- Make fruit slushy’s by blending ice chips and fruit that has been through a processor
- Make banana and oat cookies by mashing bananas and mixing in oats and baking for ten minutes
Food Never to Feed Your Ducks
There are some foods that contain deadly elements or have no nutritional value and will eventually lead to sick or dead ducks.
- ❌ Bread – no nutritional value
- ❌ Cat food – contains methionine which could kill your ducks
- ❌ The leaves of any plant in the nightshade family – tomatoes, eggplant, pepper, white potatoes
- ❌ Spinach – prevents calcium absorption
- ❌ Garlic
- ❌ Popcorn
- ❌ Iceberg lettuce
- ❌ Avocado – is toxic to ducks
- ❌ Chocolate – if you are feeding this to your ducks, I say I am a bird of the feather 😉
- ❌ Onions – are toxic if you give too much
- ❌ Crackers
- ❌ Citrus – is too acidic and will cause digestive problems
- ❌ Raw, green potato peals – toxic
- ❌ Salty, sugary, or high-fat foods are bad for all the same reasons that they are bad for humans
- ❌ Fizzy drinks
- ❌ Caffeine
- ❌ Dry, raw, or undercooked beans – contain hemagglutinin
- ❌ Egg plant
- ❌ Green tomatoes
- ❌ Peanuts
- ❌ White potatoes
When buying duck food, it is best that you buy in small quantities so that the food you are feeding your ducks is fresh. I know the temptation to buy in bulk is real, but by the time you reach the end of the food it has spoiled, has lost its nutritional value, and tastes awful.
Also check the best before date before you purchase food (even in small quantities). Use only known brands from a good supplier like Mazuri or Purina.
Keep the food inside a sealed plastic container in a cool, dark place away from mold, rodents, or insects as they carry diseases that can kill ducks.
Give your ducks clean, dry food with every meal. If there are leftovers, throw them out.
Always have water nearby to the food so that those who want to dunk a chunk (a pellet) can do so and the rest have access to the water that is critical to their digestive systems.
The most important lessons I hope you have learned are:
- Always feed your ducks proper waterfowl food before giving treat foods
- Make sure the protein content is right
- Make sure your ducks have access to clean drinking water
- Make sure they have access to grits
- Their total daily intake of fruit or vegetables should be no more than 10% of their feed
- Make sure they have access to plenty of greens
- Rather send the chocolates my way
If you learned these, I did my job right.
Di-Anne Devenish Seebregts was raised in an environment where daily life consisted of hiking, environmental conservation, growing fruit and vegetables, and raising poultry for meat and eggs.
She combined her passion for the writing word with her love of the pride that comes with not relying on others. She raised three children (who are now adults) to value the environment, and understand the value of being self-sufficient.