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What do Ducks Eat? A Detailed Guide on Feeding Your Flock

Keeping ducks is like inviting a lively, feathered circus into your life. With the right facilities and care, they are a joy to keep, bringing their quirky personalities with a symphony of quacks, not to mention the delightful promise of fresh eggs and succulent meat. But behind the scenes of these cute, waddling, water-loving creatures lies a critical factor that determines the well-being of your duck flock: their diet. Here, I’ll unlock the nutritional secrets that not only meet their physical needs but also contribute to their mental well-being. In this in-depth guide, I’ll answer the question, “What do ducks eat?” We’ll dive into the world of wild duck food and circle from the wild marshes to your backyard pond to help you ensure that your feathered companions live their best lives of health, happiness, and a chorus of enthusiastic quacking. Let’s start with a general overview.

The Importance of Balance

Whether you raise your ducks for eggs, meat, or simply as ornamental pets, they thrive on a diet that provides all the nutrients necessary for their overall good health. A balanced diet plays a critical role in supporting their immune systems, feather quality, reproductive capabilities, and energy levels. It is the cornerstone of their physical well-being and ensures that they live healthy, happy lives.

To truly understand the needs of ducks, it’s important first to understand their foraging habits. Wild ducks in their natural habitats instinctively seek out a variety of foods, including aquatic plants, insects, and small fish. Understanding these instincts helps us replicate a diet in captivity that not only meets their nutritional needs but also their natural behavioral needs. By catering to their foraging instincts, we can promote both physical and mental well-being.

The Natural Foraging Behavior of Wild Ducks

Wild ducks are diverse and adaptable by nature. They inhabit a range of environments globally, from serene freshwater lakes to coastal marshes and riverbanks, wetlands, ponds, lakes, and estuaries. These locations provide not only a constant source of water but also the rich variety of food essential to their survival.

Ducks are remarkably adaptable, inhabiting a wide variety of environments around the world. Mallards and Wood Ducks, for example, thrive in freshwater habitats such as ponds and lakes, where they can take advantage of abundant aquatic vegetation and insects. Northern Pintails and Teals, on the other hand, prefer marshes and wetlands, where they benefit from a wide variety of aquatic plants and small invertebrates. Coastal regions attract sea ducks such as Eiders and Scoters, which incorporate marine invertebrates and small fish into their diets, while Mergansers often make riverbanks and estuaries their home, benefiting from the mix of aquatic life and vegetation in these dynamic ecosystems. Each species has evolved to take advantage of the unique resources offered by its chosen habitat, demonstrating the incredible adaptability of ducks.

A variety of aquatic plants and weeds form an important part of their natural diet. These include nutritious options such as Duckweed, a small floating plant that ducks like to eat. Water Hyacinth is another favorite, with both the seeds and tender parts of this floating plant enjoyed. In addition, ducks find both food and nesting material in Cattails and Bulrushes, underscoring the multifunctional role these plants play in the lives of wild ducks.

They also show a strong propensity for insectivory, and their natural diet includes a wide variety of insects and invertebrates, such as snails and mollusks. On the water, in addition to eating small fish and crustaceans, they also enjoy aquatic insects such as mosquito larvae, water beetles, and dragonfly nymphs. On land, ducks eagerly consume grasshoppers, ants, snails, and various other terrestrial insects, demonstrating their adaptability to forage in a variety of environments. The search for this protein-rich food provides valuable nutrition and is consistent with their instinctive foraging behavior.

Wild grass seeds are a staple of many duck species’ diets, providing a reliable source of food throughout the summer months. Sedges and smartweeds are preferred not only for their taste but also for the essential nutrients and energy they provide. During certain seasons, ducks may also turn their attention to commercially grown crops such as rice and grains, which are readily available in the fields.

Seasonal Variations in Diet

While we can pick out almost any food we want in the store regardless of the season, wild ducks must change their diet as different food sources become available. 

Spring and Summer

Warm sunshine encourages new plant growth both on land and in 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, as the abundant wildlife provides a rich supply of protein-rich foods for both the mother and her ducklings.

Fall and Winter

Many species of ducks migrate south as the days grow shorter and colder. During the winter months, insect life and plant growth become scarce, forcing wild ducks to change their diets in order to survive. 

Their adaptability and foraging behavior show how incredible ducks are at meeting their nutritional needs by taking advantage of seasonal availability in a variety of environments.

Replicating natural foraging habits in captivity

Understanding and replicating natural foraging habits in captivity can contribute significantly to the physical health and mental stimulation needed by backyard ducks. It provides a holistic approach to their nutritional well-being, ultimately promoting a happier and healthier duck population in domestic environments. 

This goes beyond simply providing a standard diet; it aims to engage ducks both physically and mentally, promoting their overall well-being. 

How to Encourage Natural Foraging Behavior

Instead of placing food in a single container, scatter it throughout the enclosure. This will encourage ducks to forage and search for their food, mimicking the natural behavior of searching for seeds, insects, and plants.

Hide small treats or pieces of vegetables in different corners of their enclosure. This stimulates their natural instinct to forage and promotes physical activity and mental stimulation.

Introduce a variety of foods with different textures and shapes. This not only provides nutritional variety but also stimulates the ducks’ natural curiosity and encourages exploration.

Occasionally offer live insects or worms. This not only adds excitement to their diet but also allows them to engage in predatory behavior, which promotes mental and physical exercise.

For ducks to be truly happy, they must be provided with a pond or water area within their enclosure. Access to water not only aids in grooming but also allows them to forage for aquatic plants and small invertebrates.

Since ducks enjoy nibbling on vegetation, incorporate edible plants and greens into the enclosure to provide additional nutrients and satisfy their natural inclination to browse and graze.

If space allows, consider rotational grazing by moving your ducks between enclosures or giving them access to different areas. This prevents overgrazing and creates a more dynamic environment.

Ducks appreciate elevated perches or platforms from which to view their surroundings. This adds vertical space and promotes physical activity. You can also provide items such as floating lettuce or waterproof toys that not only entertain them but also engage their problem-solving skills.

By taking this holistic approach, you will improve the physical health and mental stimulation of your backyard ducks, contributing to a happier and healthier population.

Nutritional Requirements of Backyard Ducks

Just like us, ducks have specific nutritional requirements in order to stay healthy.


Proteins: Ducks, like all birds, require proteins for various physiological functions, including muscle development, feather formation, and egg production. Protein-rich sources such as legumes, seeds, and insect larvae contribute to optimal growth and maintenance of bodily tissues. For ducks in egg-laying stages, sufficient protein intake is crucial to support the formation of egg whites and yolks.

Carbohydrates: These serve as a primary energy source, providing the fuel needed for daily activities and metabolic processes. Grains, seeds, and certain vegetables supply complex carbohydrates, ensuring a sustained release of energy. Balanced carbohydrate intake is particularly important for ducks engaged in activities such as foraging, mating, and rearing offspring.

Fats: Dietary fats are also essential, playing an important role in energy storage, insulation, and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Seeds, nuts, and aquatic invertebrates are natural sources of healthy fats. For ducks raised for meat production, a balanced fat intake contributes to the development of flavorful and succulent meat.


Vitamins: Ducks require a spectrum of vitamins for various physiological functions. Vitamin A supports vision and immune function, Vitamin D aids in calcium absorption for bone health, and Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant. Leafy greens, grains, and exposure to sunlight are sources of essential vitamins. A deficiency can lead to health issues and impact egg production.

Minerals: Essential minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, and selenium, are necessary for bone development, eggshell formation, and overall metabolic processes. Calcium-rich sources like oyster shells or crushed eggshells are particularly important for laying hens. Ducks obtain minerals from a varied diet, and their availability is essential for maintaining robust health.

A balanced diet is the cornerstone to ensuring the optimal health of backyard ducks. 

Feeding Considerations for Ducks

These are some of the feeding considerations you should keep in mind when feeding your ducks.

Age-Specific Dietary Needs

Ducklings require a specialized starter feed for the first few weeks of life, typically containing higher levels of protein (18-20%) for growth and development.

Ensure the feed includes essential vitamins like A, D, and E, as well as minerals like calcium and phosphorus for bone development.

Provide easy access to shallow, clean water at all times as they transition to solid food.

As ducklings grow, transition to a grower feed with slightly reduced protein content (15-18%) to support steady growth without excess fat deposition.

Continue providing a well-balanced diet with essential nutrients for feather development and overall health.

Adjust feed quantities based on growth rates, ensuring ducks neither gain weight too rapidly nor face nutritional deficiencies.

The next transition is to a layer feed if you are raising your birds to produce eggs. This begins when your ducks are close to laying age, usually around 18-20 weeks, depending on breed. Layer feed contains elevated calcium levels for eggshell formation.

If not using layer feed, you’ll need to provide calcium supplements separately to ensure optimal calcium intake for laying hens.

Balanced Commercial Duck Feeds

Opt for commercially formulated duck pellets with balanced nutrient profiles, offering a complete diet.

Don’t forget to adjust protein content based on the purpose of your ducks (meat, eggs, or pets). 

Look for feeds with natural ingredients and avoid those with excessive fillers. Essential nutrients should be derived from quality sources. In commercial duck feeds, fillers are often used to bulk up the feed and provide a cost-effective means of delivering the necessary nutrients. While some fillers are harmless and may even contribute some nutritional value, excessive reliance on fillers can dilute the overall quality of the feed. Here are some common types of fillers that may be used in duck feeds. Look out for them in the list of ingredients:

Grains and Cereal By-Products:

Corn – While a valuable energy source, excessive use can contribute to a high carbohydrate content, which lays down too much fat.

Wheat – Often included in feeds, but an overemphasis can impact the balance of nutrients.

Soybean Hulls and Meal:

Soybean Hulls – A by-product of soybean processing, used as a fiber source. While it adds bulk, it lacks some essential nutrients and dilutes the nutritional quality of the feed.

Soybean Meal – Valuable for protein but, in excess, can contribute to an imbalanced amino acid profile.

Rice Bran:

Rice bran is sometimes included to add volume to the feed. While it contains some nutrients, its main role is often as a filler.

Peanut Hulls:

This ingredient adds fiber but lacks significant nutritional content. Used more for its physical properties than as a nutrient source.

Beet Pulp:

Used for its fiber content. While it contributes to digestive health, it should not overshadow more nutrient-dense ingredients.

Alfalfa Meal:

While a good source of certain nutrients, excessive use can contribute to imbalances, particularly in calcium.

Although some of these fillers do have nutritional value, and their inclusion in moderation is not necessarily problematic, the key is to ensure that essential nutrients are primarily derived from quality sources, such as animal proteins, fish meal, and plant-based ingredients that are rich in vitamins and minerals. 

Toxic Substances and Those Harmful to Laying Hens

Ensure the absence of substances toxic to ducks, such as medicated feeds containing substances that can be harmful to laying hens. Always choose feeds specifically formulated for ducks and avoid those intended for other species, especially if they contain additives or medications.

Medications and Antibiotics:

Ionophores – Certain medications, like ionophores, which are commonly used in poultry feeds for disease prevention, can be toxic to ducks. Ducks are more sensitive to certain medications than chickens, and medicated feeds meant for other poultry species are often not suitable for ducks. This can be problematic if you keep chickens and ducks together.

Hormones and Growth Promoters – Ducks do not respond well to hormonal additives or growth promoters, and the use of such substances in feed can lead to imbalances in their natural growth and development.

Artificial Preservatives – Some commercially prepared feeds may contain artificial preservatives, such as BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) or BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), which could be potentially harmful to ducks if consumed in large quantities, so is best avoided.

Excessive Trace Minerals – While essential minerals are crucial, excessive levels of certain trace minerals, such as selenium, can be toxic. It’s important to ensure that mineral levels in the feed are within recommended ranges.

The recommended range of minerals in commercial duck feed can vary based on the specific needs of ducks at different life stages and purposes (e.g., laying, growing, or maintenance). Below is a general guideline for the recommended range of minerals in commercial duck feed:


Laying Ducks – Laying ducks require a higher calcium content in their feed to support eggshell formation. The recommended range for calcium in laying duck feeds is typically around 3.5% to 4.5%.

Growing Ducks – For growing ducks or ducks in a non-laying phase, lower levels of calcium, around 1.0% to 1.5%, are usually sufficient.


This is approximately 0.4% to 0.6% for all life stages. Phosphorus is essential for bone development and overall metabolism.


This is usually included in duck feed to maintain electrolyte balance. The recommended range for all life stages is typically around 0.1% to 0.3%.


This is an essential trace mineral and is recommended in the range of around 0.1 to 0.3 parts per million (ppm).


Another essential trace mineral with a recommended range for all life stages of approximately 40 to 120 ppm.


Also an essential trace mineral, with a recommended range of around 8 to 20 ppm.


Feeds that are contaminated with mycotoxins, which are produced by certain molds, can be harmful. Mycotoxins may have various adverse effects on duck health, including liver damage. To safeguard your ducks, ensure that feed sacks are totally dry with no sign of water damage when you purchase them. Store them in a cool, dry environment where they won’t become damp.

Supplemental Treats: Dos and Don’ts

Just like us, your ducks will love receiving an occasional treat, but there are a few dos and don’ts to be aware of. 


  • Offer a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits as treats. Leafy greens, carrots, and berries are often enjoyed by ducks. Always ensure they are fresh with no sign of mold.
  • Introduce live insects such as mealworms or small amounts of whole grains as occasional treats for added protein and enrichment.
  • Provide treats in moderation to prevent nutritional imbalances. Overconsumption can lead to obesity and health issues.


  • Avoid giving ducks processed foods, sugary snacks, and salty treats, as these can be harmful to their health.
  • Stay clear of foods toxic to ducks, such as chocolate, onions, and avocado. Ensure treats are safe for consumption.
  • Avoid feeding bread, as it lacks essential nutrients and can lead to nutritional imbalances, organ damage, and a malformation known as Angel Wing.

Harmful Plants that May be Growing in the Environment

Commercial feeds themselves are designed to provide balanced nutrition, and reputable brands take precautions to avoid the inclusion of toxic components. However, ducks allowed to forage freely may encounter toxic plants, and you should be aware of potentially harmful plants that may be present in the environment.  Here are some examples of plants that are toxic to ducks:

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) – Contains cardiac glycosides that can be toxic to ducks if ingested in sufficient quantities.

Larkspur (Delphinium spp.) – Contains alkaloids that can be poisonous, leading to symptoms like digestive upset, weakness, and possible death.

Nightshade (Solanum spp.) – Various species of nightshade contain toxic alkaloids that can harm ducks.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) – Contains toxins that can affect the digestive and nervous systems of ducks.

Yew (Taxus spp.) – The entire yew plant, including the berries, is toxic and can cause severe health issues in ducks.

Rhododendron and Azalea (Rhododendron spp.) – Contains toxins known as grayanotoxins, which can be harmful if consumed.

Castor Bean Plant (Ricinus communis) – Contains ricin, a highly toxic substance. Ingestion can lead to severe poisoning.

Hemlock (Conium spp.) – Contains toxic alkaloids and can be lethal if consumed in sufficient quantities.

Oleander (Nerium oleander) – Contains toxic compounds that can affect the heart and gastrointestinal system.

Bracken Fern (Pteridium spp.) – Contains carcinogenic compounds and can cause long-term health issues in ducks.

Get familiar with the plants in your duck’s surroundings and remove or restrict access to any potentially toxic vegetation. If there’s uncertainty about the safety of certain plants or if your ducks show signs of illness, consulting with a veterinarian is recommended.

Ensuring Access to Clean Water

Ducks always need access to clean water. Ensure water containers intended for drinking are always filled, especially during hot weather or when ducks are consuming dry feeds. Ducks use water not only for hydration but also to aid in the digestion of dry feeds.

Clean Containers

Cleaning out water containers regularly will prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and algae. Perhaps rather surprisingly, ducks are susceptible to diseases caused by contaminated water.

Other Water Considerations

Ducks prefer shallow water for drinking, and providing shallow containers reduces the risk of ducklings drowning.

Ensure the water is potable and free from contaminants, as ducks are sensitive to water quality, and impurities can adversely affect their health.

Feeding Ducks for Egg Production

When keeping ducks for egg production diet plays an essential role. By carefully managing the diet, providing specific nutrients tailored to their reproductive needs, and offering supplemental sources for enhanced egg production, you can maximize both the quantity and quality of eggs. 

Nutrient Requirements for Laying Hens

For laying ducks such as the Khaki Campbell, Indian Runner, Golden 300 Hybrid, and White Crested, popular for their white eggs, Welsh Harlequin’s for blue-green eggs or Buff Orpington’s for brown eggs, a diet rich in protein is crucial. This is because it directly contributes to the formation of egg whites and yolks. Optimal protein levels range between 14-16% in commercial layer feeds, and the feed also ensures the correct levels of essential amino acids needed for proper egg development.

Calcium is a key component for strong eggshells. Laying ducks require an intake of 3.5-4.5% for this. Access to additional calcium sources, such as crushed oyster shells, helps ducks meet this heightened demand when laying.

Vitamins A, D, and E, plus essential minerals, including phosphorus and selenium, play vital roles in the development of the egg’s structure, color, and nutritional content.

Vitamin D is also necessary for calcium absorption and utilization. As well as being included in layers feed, giving your ducks access to natural sunlight or providing a vitamin D supplement in their diet will further support the synthesis of this crucial vitamin.

As always, proper hydration is needed too, so constant access to clean water is required to maintain the proper moisture levels within the egg.

Additional Foods that Promote Egg Production

Supplementing with protein-rich treats, including mealworms and insects, can enhance the overall protein intake. You don’t want to overdo this, but it can be beneficial as an occasional treat.

Providing leafy greens and vegetables adds variety to the diet and offers additional vitamins and minerals.

Including flaxseeds or other seeds rich in omega-3 fatty acids can enhance the nutritional content of eggs. Omega-3 fatty acids also contribute to healthier eggs with potential benefits for the consumer. It is necessary to be cautious here, however, as too much of a good thing will cause your ducks to put on too much fat, which may be detrimental to their health.

As an aside, ensuring proper lighting conditions, either natural or supplemental, can stimulate consistent egg production. Adequate light exposure encourages ducks to lay eggs regularly, especially during shorter daylight periods.

Overall, a well-balanced and nutrient-rich diet, combined with thoughtful supplementation, contributes to the overall health and productivity of laying ducks.

Feeding Ducks for Meat Production

Diet determines the quality of meat produced by ducks. To achieve the best meat, ducks should be raised on a balanced diet that promotes healthy growth and efficient muscle development. 

Feed Strategies for Meat Ducks

Putting meat ducks, such as Peking or Muscovy, on a high-protein starter feed of around 18-20%, is necessary during their initial growth phase. It supports rapid muscle development and provides the foundation for optimal meat yield.

Transitioning to grower feeds, with slightly reduced protein levels of 15-16%, as ducks progress in age ensures a more balanced approach to growth. This helps achieve the desired muscle-to-fat ratio for flavorful and well-textured meat.

In the final growth phase, finisher feeds with a protein level of 14-16%, encourages proper muscle development, and minimizes excessive fat deposition.

Supplementing the diet with essential vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin E and selenium, can positively impact meat quality. These nutrients contribute to muscle antioxidant status, reducing oxidative stress and enhancing the meat’s overall quality.

While promoting growth is essential, overfeeding should be avoided to prevent excessive fat accumulation. Controlling feed intake ensures that ducks achieve the desired weight without compromising meat quality.

Feeding Ornamental Ducks

Ornamental ducks benefit from balanced commercial feeds designed specifically for waterfowl. These feeds provide essential nutrients, including proteins, vitamins, and minerals, contributing to overall health and vibrant plumage.

Different ornamental duck species may have varying dietary needs. So, it is important to choose a commercial feed that aligns with the specific nutritional requirements of the ornamental duck breed in question. You should follow expert advice on this for best results.

As a general rule of thumb, ornamental ducks will need feeds with protein levels between 14-16% to maintain their plumage and support proper physiological functions.

Giving fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens as supplemental treats will enhance the variety in their diet. Treats are not only offered to provide additional nutrients but also contribute to mental enrichment.

While treats are enjoyable for ornamental ducks, they must only be given in moderation to avoid dietary imbalances. Excessive treats may lead to nutritional deficiencies and health issues.

Incorporating Foraging Activities in Captivity

Scatter feeding involves spreading food across the enclosure, encouraging ornamental ducks to search for their meals. This mimics their natural foraging behavior and provides mental stimulation.

Introducing foraging toys that dispense small treats when manipulated engages their minds and adds an element of physical activity, promoting both mental and physical well-being.

Hide treats in various locations within their enclosure. This helps to make the ducks curious, explore their surroundings, engage in problem-solving, and utilize their natural instincts for locating food.

The Impact of Diet on Ornamental Duck Behavior and Appearance

Ornamental ducks provided with high-quality diets are more energetic and livelier. Proper nutrition contributes to overall vitality and the display of natural behaviors.

Providing a nutritionally sound diet means your ducks are more likely to have vibrant and well-maintained feathers.

Nutritional deficiencies may result in stress or aggression. A well-rounded diet contributes to a balanced temperament and reduces potential behavior issues.

During the breeding season, proper nutrition supports healthy reproductive behaviors, including courtship displays and nesting activities.

By adhering to best feeding practices, prioritizing mental stimulation through enrichment activities, incorporating foraging opportunities, and understanding the impact of diet on ornamental duck behavior, you can ensure the overall well-being of these charming waterfowl in captivity. 

Common Dietary Issues and Solutions

By addressing common dietary issues using preventative measures, maintaining a balanced diet, and making targeted adjustments for specific health concerns, you can ensure the overall well-being and longevity of your flock. Regular monitoring, veterinary guidance, and a proactive approach to dietary management contribute to the health and happiness of ducks in various settings.

Obesity in Ducks

Obesity is often a result of overfeeding, particularly with high-calorie treats. A lack of physical activity and an imbalanced diet also contribute to excessive weight gain.

Implementing portion control will help to prevent obesity along with limiting the number of daily feeds and treats. It is also advisable to ensure your ducks have access to an environment that encourages physical activity.

Replace high-calorie treats with healthier options such as chopped vegetables or leafy greens. This not only provides variety but also prevents unnecessary calorie intake.

Designing the living space to promote natural behaviors, like foraging and swimming. This encourages your ducks to be more physically active, aiding in weight management.

Malnutrition Signs and Prevention

Malnourished ducks may exhibit dull and unkempt plumage and a decrease in activity levels. Lack of essential nutrients affects feather, egg and meat quality. 

Noticeable weight loss, despite regular feeding, is a red flag for malnutrition. To prevent malnutrition, provide a balanced commercial duck feed that meets all essential nutritional requirements. Ensure the diet includes proteins, vitamins, minerals, and sufficient energy.

Regular check-ups by a veterinarian will help detect signs of malnutrition early. A professional can recommend dietary adjustments or supplements to address specific deficiencies.

Other Common Dietary Health Issues

For ducks experiencing digestive issues such as constipation, incorporate fiber-rich foods like leafy greens and wheat bran. 

Ducks with joint issues benefit from a diet with a balanced calcium-phosphorus ratio. This prevents skeletal problems and supports overall joint health.

Eggs with poor shell quality may be improved by feeding additional calcium. Crushed oyster shells or specialized supplements can enhance calcium intake.

Renal issues may benefit from a low-phosphorus diet to ease the strain on the kidneys. Adjusting the feed to lower phosphorus levels supports kidney health.

Identify and eliminate specific food items if ducks exhibit signs of allergies or sensitivities. Gradually reintroduce foods to pinpoint the cause and adjust the diet accordingly.


Keeping ducks is a delightful venture, filled with the joy of witnessing their quirky personalities and the promises of fresh eggs and succulent meat. However, behind the scenes of cute, waddling water lovers lies a crucial factor that determines their well-being: their diet.

Responsible duck keeping involves more than just providing high, quality, balanced food. You should also be encouraging natural foraging behavior, creating enriching environments, and understanding the individual needs of different duck breeds.

The intricate connection between diet and the overall well-being of ducks cannot be overstated. From preventing common dietary issues like obesity and malnutrition to addressing specific health concerns through targeted dietary adjustments, this guide should have provided you with insights and solutions to ensure the longevity and vitality of our feathered friends.

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