Do Ducks Actually Eat Fish? Setting Things Straight…

If you didn’t know any better and only spent time around ducks hanging out by the lake, you might think they live entirely on bread and crackers. After all, that’s what people throw at them all the time!

ducks eating treats collage
ducks eating treats collage

Kidding aside, ducks actually have a highly varied, omnivorous diet, and that diet includes animal protein. But there is contention over whether or not ducks actually eat fish along with other aquatic creatures.

Let’s set things straight once and for all, shall we? Do ducks actually eat fish or not?

Yes, ducks do eat fish. Some duck breeds eat a lot more fish than others, and how much fish a given duck will eat depends on the availability of fish, nutritional requirements, what season it is, and a lot more.

Yes, categorically, these birds can and will eat fish, and some ducks eat a ton of fish. But this is actually a surprisingly nuanced subject: a few breeds and species might eat fish only on an opportunistic basis, while others are reliable catchers of fish as a mainstay of their diet. There’s a lot to parse out!

It’s interesting stuff for sure, and you should know about it if you have ducks of your own. Keep reading, and we’ll dive right in.

Some Eat a Lot More Fish than Others as a Rule

Probably the most significant determining factor of how much fish a duck will eat is its breed and type.

Dabbling ducks like Mallards and Pintails, among all other kinds, don’t get that much fish in their diet, and that’s because these ducks typically feed from aquatic sources by sitting on the surface and tipping upside down, or dabbling, rather than actually diving down to get their food.

Make no mistake, they eat all kinds of aquatic plants and animals, and that includes fish along with crustaceans, but their opportunities for actually catching fish are pretty limited.

Diving ducks, on the other hand, are those that fully submerge under the water seeking out certain kinds of food, and they have access to a wider variety of plants and animals, and that includes greater access to fish.

Redheads and Canvasback ducks are two diving species that will reliably catch and eat fish wherever they are found, assuming they are of the right size.

Sea ducks are the most likely fish eaters of all, as these will swim and dive in coastal waters, or even the open ocean or large inland seas, and are capable of attaining surprising depths when diving.

Naturally, since the vast majority of their food comes from beneath the surface, they must make use of everything that’s down there, and that includes a greater variety of fish species. They tend to be the most successful fishers.

Ducks that Need Protein are More Likely to Eat Fish

One thing to keep in mind is that for ducks, fish are only one of several sources of protein that they might have access to, and often fish are one of the most difficult to catch owing to their agility in the water.

If they need lots of protein, say because they are getting ready to lay eggs, because of molting, healing from an injury, growing, or some other reason, they are more likely to go after fish if fish are nearby.

However, it is just as likely to start eating fish eggs, tadpoles, frogs, snails, slugs, insects, and other high-quality protein sources that are far easier to catch.

Fish are on the menu, to be sure, but they aren’t always the best use of a duck’s time and energy when it needs food.

Fish Aren’t Always Available to Ducks!

Whether or not a species is specialized and adapted to eating a lot of fish, the availability of fish in nearby waters is, of course, a huge factor in how much a duck will eat.

Depletion from fishing, disease, environmental change, migration, and more means there simply might not be many fish around for ducks to dine on, or that what fish are around are unsuitable as food sources. Some fish might be big and strong enough to make a meal of the bird, too! Talk about turning the tables…

Seasonal Changes and Migration Might Mean More or Less Fish on the Menu

Ducks tend to be migratory. Most are, but not all. The pressures of migration might mean that fish are prioritized or deprioritized depending on a subset of factors like the availability of fish at the departure location and the condition of the sources.

Obviously, if ducks are departing colder regions that have frozen over, they’re not going to be able to get fish from beneath the ice.

Likewise, flocks that head south to flee the cold will arrive to find bountiful, thawed waters that they can start fishing in to replenish their energy.

This is why certain birds at certain times of the year might not be fish feeders, but they’ll be fish eaters at other times. Like I said up in the beginning, there are many variables!

Do Domestic Ducks Eat Fish?

Yes, they absolutely do, but unless you have a pond, lake, or stream on your property that they have access to, the only other way that they will get fish is if you stock their water source with live fish to let them hunt, or feed them fish that you supply.

Do You Have to Give Domestic Ducks Fish?

No. This is a common misconception. Fish are certainly a natural food for ducks, and one that most of them are very happy to get, but they don’t have to have them.

As healthy and nutritious as they are, there are many other sources of animal protein that can give ducks what they need in order to thrive.

As mentioned, insects, insect larvae, small reptiles, and amphibians, crustaceans like crayfish, shrimp, mussels, and invertebrates like snails and slugs are all great choices that are much easier for them to have, and much easier for you to supply most of the time!

Are Fish Bones a Problem for Ducks?

No, assuming that the fish in question is small enough for a duck to swallow whole. You don’t want to give ducks fish fillets or any other cut of fish that still has bones in them for this reason, because they’re far more likely to get caught in their throat, crop, or gizzard.

As long as your birds can swallow a fish whole, meaning it’s not too big for them, the bones shouldn’t trouble them at all, and they will pass them normally if they are undigested.

What’s the Biggest Fish a Duck Can Eat?

It depends on the species and the size of the individual bird. But, using one of the largest and most prolific fish-eating species, the Merganser, as an example, they can easily eat sizable fish like chubs and trout.

But your smaller ducks that also dwell on lakes and rivers, like Mallards, can only handle fish like minnows or guppies.

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