What Do Ducks Eat?

Birds that can't fly: Steamer Duck
© iStock.com/Michel VIARD

Written by Patrick Sather

Updated: November 19, 2021

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What Do Ducks Eat
Ducks eat an omnivorous diet that includes plants and small animals such as fish and insects

Have you ever fed ducks at a local pond or lake? While often considered a harmless activity, this simple act can do a load of harm to a wild duck. Like any animal, ducks eat a specialized diet catered to their needs. A part of the family Anatidae, ducks are aquatic waterfowl that live off of the plants and animals that live in or near aquatic habitats. While it’s tempting to want to feed them bread and crackers, they didn’t adapt to eat these foods. The same goes for the unrelated but similar-looking loon, coot, diver, and grebe. All of these cosmopolitan birds, along with swans and geese, require a balance of protein, fiber, and vitamins. However, it begs the question as to what do ducks eat? 

In this article, we’ll examine what ducks like to eat and how they hunt and forage for food. We’ll also take some time to explore what wild ducks eat versus what pet ducks eat. Then, we’ll wrap up with a quick conversation about what baby ducks eat. So, let’s dive in and answer the question, “what do ducks eat? 

What Do Ducks Like to Eat?

A Mallard duck swimming in the water

Ducks are omnivores and eat a wide variety of plants and small animals.

©Pascal Halder/Shutterstock.com

Ducks eat an omnivorous diet full of plants and small animals. In the wild, ducks can eat anywhere between 6 to 7 ounces of food per day. They possess big appetites, and usually forage and hunt for food throughout the day. Ducks enjoy a wide variety of foods, and their diet preferences change based upon their species and habitat. That said, you can boil down the foods that ducks like to eat into fifteen categories. These foods most often occur on lists of food that make up a duck’s diet. 

Common foods that ducks eat include: 

  • Grasses
  • Aquatic plants
  • Fish
  • Insects
  • Worms
  • Bugs
  • Mollusks
  • Small amphibians
  • Crabs
  • Seeds
  • Berries
  • Grains
  • Nuts
  • Roots
  • Shrimp

While ducks will eat almost anything they can catch, the foods above make up a well-balanced diet for a duck.  

How Do Ducks Forage and Hunt For Food?

Fastest Birds in the World: Red-breasted Merganser

Mergansers rely on their keen vision to spot fish and mollusks underwater.

©Brian E Kushner/Shutterstock.com

Ducks use the same senses as people, including sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. However, their senses evolved to help them thrive in aquatic environments, avoid predators, and find food. In addition, some developed senses that help them during migration, and to adapt to different environments. More than any other sense, ducks rely on sight to find food. Compared to a person, ducks can see detail two to three times better at equivalent distances. They can also see a much wider spectrum of colors than people, and can even see ultraviolet radiation. This hyper-sensitivity to light allows them to see extremely well in the daytime, although their night vision is poor. In particular, ducks such as mergansers rely on their vision to pursue quick prey underwater. 

Outside of sight, many ducks also use touch to help them hunt for prey. They use their bills to search for food in the grass, mud, or at the bottom of ponds and lakes. Ducks possess highly sensitive touch receptors that allow them to find grasses and other edible plants. On the other hand, ducks possess fewer taste buds than humans – around 400. That said, ducks do find certain tastes repellant, which may explain why they prefer certain grasses over others. To a certain degree, ducks also rely on their smell and hearing to detect foods. However, they primarily use these senses to communicate and avoid predators rather than to find food. 

What Do Ducks Eat in the Wild?

mandarin duck reflected in calm water

Ducks eat a wide variety of amphibians, nuts, seeds, plants, fish, and insects.

©Christian Musat/Shutterstock.com

Different species of wild ducks eat different foods depending on their environment and evolutionary adaptations. While some ducks eat more plants, seeds, and nuts, others primarily consume fish or mollusks. Typically, you can tell what foods a duck primarily eats based on its bill shape. For example, ducks with thin, serrated bills excel at catching fish, so they predominantly eat fish, mollusks, and small amphibians. On the other hand, ducks with flat, rounded bills are more suited to digging up plants and insects. In addition, a duck’s diet will change with the seasons. Generally speaking, ducks will eat whatever foods they can find, which means they may eat less of some foods in winter. 

Among aquatic plants, ducks eat a wide variety of different vegetation. These include wild rice, celery, coontail, duckweed, pondweed, water hyacinth, fairy moss, and milfoil to name a few. As for grains, ducks enjoy plants like millet and corn. Popular insects and bugs include worms, grubs, mosquitoes, beetles, and grasshoppers. As for mollusks, they eat slugs and snails, as well as a wide variety of shellfish like crabs, clams, and mussels. If they can catch amphibians, they will eat a variety of frogs, tadpoles, and salamanders. Meanwhile, common small fish include minnows, graylings, guppies, while larger ducks can eat brown trout or chub. In addition, most wild ducks will eat some dirt and rocks to help them grind up and digest their food. 

For example, dabbling ducks feed near the surface of the water and eat mostly plants, insects, and worms. On the other hand, diving ducks, like the mergansers, eat mostly fish, insects, mollusks, roots, and tubers. In short, duck diets can vary wildly, so it’s important to know the differences between species and their preferred foods. 

What Do Pet Ducks Eat?

What Do Pet Ducks Eat
Pet ducks typically eat a pellet or crumbled diet.

Generally speaking, most pet ducks will eat a pellet or crumbled diet that contains all the essential nutrients they need. Ideally, pet ducks will eat a specialized formula designed for waterfowl. However, they can also eat pellet food made for parrots or chickens. That said, you should never feed a medicated formula for chickens or parrots to your pet duck. These medicated formulae can contain substances toxic to ducks. If your pet duck spends time outside grazing, it likely will not require grit in its diet. In the event your pet duck lives inside, you can occasionally add a little dirt to its food. Outside of its normal pellet diet, you can also feed some treats to your pet duck. Just make sure treats make up no more than 5-10% of its diet. Safe treats include:

  • Carrots
  • Non-citrus fruit
  • Corn
  • Peas
  • Cucumber
  • Uncooked oats or rice

To keep a pet duck healthy, it’s important to feed it a balanced diet. Furthermore, a duck’s diet can change based on its age, gender, and whether or not it is laying eggs. For example, male ducks, or drakes, require a diet that is around 15% protein. The same is true for female ducks not currently laying eggs. On the other hand, laying ducks require between 16% to 17% protein in their diet. As for vitamins, both adult, juvenile, and laying ducks require enough calcium and niacin in their diet. However, laying ducks may require extra calcium to lay quality eggs. A common way to add calcium is to include oyster shells in a laying duck’s feed. That said, this may not be necessary if the duck is eating a high-quality feed. 

  • Crackers
  • Bread
  • Chips
  • Cookies, cakes, donuts
  • Popcorn
  • Cereal
  • Onions
  • Chocolate
  • Salted or flavored nuts
  • Citrus fruits
  • Avocado
  • Raw or dried beans

What Do Baby Ducks Eat?

A Mallard duckling swims next to his mother

Baby ducks require a diet that’s at least 18% to 20% protein.

©Jody Ann/Shutterstock.com

Baby ducks require an even more specialized diet compared to adult ducks. During the first few days of life, hatchlings will live off of the egg yolk from their egg. In the wild, baby ducks will then eat whatever they can find, but predominantly algae, insects, and worms. Baby ducks require a diet that’s 18% to 20% protein, so they require more protein than adult ducks. When feeding a baby duck, it’s best to start it off on a waterfowl starter if possible. This feed contains the right mix of protein, niacin, and other nutrients for baby ducks. That said, a baby chicken starter will also suffice in a pinch. After the first few days, you can start to transition a baby duck to a standard feed. You can also provide small amounts of treats, including non-citrus fruits, veggies, grasses, weeds, and insects. 

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