Ducks

What to feed wild ducks

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Is it bad to feed bread to ducks? If you or your family are trying to figure out what to feed wild ducks, you’ll find answers to all your duck feeding questions here!


I grew up spending countless days on Lake Santee in South Carolina at our family’s lake house. Occasionally, our family would spot wild Mallard ducks swimming close to the pier at which point my brother and I would rush inside to get bread to feed them. 

My childhood habit of feeding bread to wild Mallards isn’t unique and has likely been going on for many generations. Although it’s controversial today, the practice of feeding bread to ducks presumably hasn’t hurt wild Mallard populations, which are doing quite well in North America.  

Wild mallards foraging next to a pond.

Wild Mallards foraging next to a pond.

Most other wild duck species such as wood ducks and scaup ducks are much more shy than Mallards and don’t approach humans for food.   

Becoming duck evangelists 

Fast forward to today: my wife and I are now self-proclaimed “duck evangelists.” We raise heritage breed ducks (specifically Welsh Harlequins), which are both pets and family members to us. No, feeding bread to wild ducks isn’t a gateway drug that will eventually lead to diapered domesticated ducks enjoying movie night on your couch — so long as you don’t inhale. 

Svetlana loved having friends in for movie night, although she didn't necessarily enjoy sharing her food and treats.

Movie night is always a big hit with our ducks, so long as there are tomatoes (their favorite food) offered and The Duckumentary (their favorite movie) showing  

However, due to our proximity to these humorous waterfowl, my wife and I are uniquely tuned in to the nutritional needs of both ducklings and mature ducks since having an unhealthy duck could mean an expensive trip to an avian vet or the loss of a beloved family member. 

Bread battle at the park

One thing we NEVER do with our domesticated ducks? Feed them bread or junk food.  

However, when we go to nearby parks or lakes, we often see groups of well-intentioned people tossing bread, potato chips, donuts, and various other human foods to ducks. This puts us in an awkward position: should we try to nicely encourage people not to feed these foods to ducks and risk getting into an argument because the bread-tosser feels chastised? Or should we just go about our day and hope things work out ok for the ducks? 

Frankly, we typically move along without staging an intervention because there’s almost no good way to broach the topic under these conditions without seeming like a killjoy. However, if you’re reading this article, it means you’re probably curious and open to the possibility that maybe feeding wild ducks human junk food isn’t a great idea.

That means there’s an opportunity for dialogue… so let’s start the discussion!  

Is bread bad for ducks? 

Since we’re known as “those crazy duck people,” we often get asked: “is bread bad for ducks?” Short answer: bread is not an ideal food for optimal duck health, but it won’t immediately harm them. 

While feeding bread, potato chips, etc. to a wild duck won’t kill them, it’s not likely to help the duck unless it’s near starvation. Given the fact that wild ducks are excellent flyers and swimmers and can easily find abundant food in the wild, it’s very unlikely that a wild duck you encounter is *starving. If there’s not abundant food at one spot, a non-injured wild duck will simply fly or swim to another spot rather than waiting around for potato chips and a bag of bread to appear.   

(*If you do happen to see an injured duck, please contact your nearest waterfowl rescue. Here’s a helpful list of waterfowl rescue operations in the United States.

If one person feeds a wild duck human junk food, is it truly harmful? No.

However, at public parks, boat ramps, and other popular spots where people regularly feed wild ducks multiple times per day, the practice can cause serious health problems for ducks. That’s because:

  • the foods people typically give to ducks (bread, chips, etc) are nutritionally poor relative to what a duck needs;
  • when repeatedly given food by people, wild ducks may start getting a lower percentage of their diets from healthy natural sources (water plants, crustaceans, minnows, seeds, etc);
  • larger numbers of ducks and other waterfowl may start congregating in the area, creating unhygienic buildups of poo, bacteria, and issues with water quality/pollution.   

Heightened risk of feeding bread to wild DUCKLINGS 

It’s also important to note that feeding human foods to ducklings is especially problematic for the following reasons:

  1. they need to learn how to forage actual wild foods within a short time window,
  2. they’re growing so *rapidly that inadequate nutrition can cause physical deformities like angel wing or even death.

(*After hatching, it takes a wild Mallard duckling about 2 months to reach flying age.)

wild mallard mom with ducklings in pond / what to feed wild ducks and ducklings

A momma Mallard looking cautiously at us nearby humans.

So you might think you’re being responsible when you’re at the park by only feeding a few potato chips and slices of bread to a duck or duckling. The four people who fed them earlier in the day and the six people who feed them after you leave might also think the same thing.

And that’s the problem that needs to be avoided: ongoing, repeat food supplementation of wild ducks with low-nutrient human foods. The only way to be sure to avoid this problem is to not feed wild ducks in the first place.   

Wild vs domesticated vs hybrid ducks 

The Tyrant and our niece feeding ducks Mazuri waterfowl feed at a popular nearby pond in Greenville, SC. If you know ducks, you'll notice the domesticated breeds: Pekins and Cayuga, mixed in with wild Mallards. These ducks were someone's pets that were irresponsibly dumped on the pond.

The Tyrant and our niece feeding ducks Mazuri waterfowl feed at a popular nearby pond in Greenville, SC. If you know ducks, you’ll notice the domesticated breeds (Pekins and Cayugas) mixed in with wild Mallards (front). These ducks were someone’s pets that were irresponsibly dumped on the pond.

A quick but important side note…

Unfortunately, many people who get domesticated ducks as temporary pets or play things (Easter is the worst!) end up dumping their ducks at nearby ponds and waterways. These domesticated ducks have never learned how to forage, fend for themselves, or avoid predators. Also, they’re very likely flightless breeds rendering them even more helpless. Odds are, these abandoned ducks will die within a matter of days or weeks. 

Aside from being inhumane, this practice has the potential to create genetic contamination of wild Mallard populations as well. When larger, flightless domesticated breeds cross with wild Mallards, the offspring may be less suited to migrate or survive in their natural habitat.  

As Oregon State University Extension agency says:

“Domestic ducks and Mallards are the same species, with some of the same genes. Mallards have the ability to cross breed with 63 other duck species and create fertile hybrid offspring. This ability can dilute a duck breed population and cause severe ‘genetic pollution’ leading to the extinction of wild, indigenous waterfowl. They are considered an invasive species in some areas.” 

You may notice these abandoned domesticated ducks and/or hybrid offspring at a nearby lake or park. They may actually be starving or dependent on human-supplemented food for survival. We’re not sure what advice to offer you if you encounter such ducks…

The ideal situation would be to somehow get them out of the wild and back into a domesticated setting where they can be cared for by humans without potentially contaminating the gene pool of wild Mallards. 

What should you feed wild ducks?

If you’ve made it this far, you now know that the best thing you can feed wild ducks is nothing. However, if you or your children are determined to feed wild ducks, we’d recommend avoiding low-nutrition foods like chips, white bread, cookies, donuts, etc. 

Instead, here are our top recommendations for foods you can feed to wild ducks:  

1. Waterfowl-specific food or treats

If feeding wild ducks is something you’re going to be doing regularly (example: you live near a pond and your kids are duck-obsessed), we’d strongly encourage you to get food that has been specifically formulated for waterfowl. Good options: 

It’s important to note that both of these waterfowl-specific feeds are designed to float in water. This feature makes it easy for waterfowl to eat it, while reducing water pollution caused by food sinking to the bottom and rotting. 

3. Organic leafy greens.

We have a whole article detailing our ducks’ favorite garden treats. While tomatoes top the list for our ducks and peas top the list for many other ducks we hear about, both of them sink when put in water. This means they’re not ideal to feed to wild ducks – unless you do it on land. 

Our ducks also love leafy greens. Some favorites: kale, lettuce, chicory, and pea greens. When tossed in water, these veggies either stay afloat or sink very slowly. Combined with their high nutritional content, this feature makes them a great food to feed to wild ducks. Wild greens like chickweed are also a duck favorite when they’re seasonally available. 

We don’t recommend other leafy greens like spinach, chard, arugula, or spicy mustard greens. Ducks generally don’t like them and in the case or spinach and chard, the higher oxalic acid content can bind calcium causing health problems for ducks (especially if they’re laying eggs). 

3. Whole organic oats, seeds, etc. 

If options 1 and 2 are unavailable and you (or your kids) are determined to feed wild ducks, our third choice option would be items like whole organic, old-fashioned oats or wild bird seed. (Organic to minimize pesticide consumption.)

Oats have good nutrition and they’ll mostly float on water long enough (hopefully) for waterfowl to eat them. Heavier seeds don’t float. 

Given that these foods don’t float well, you’re better off feeding them to ducks on the shoreline or lawn areas rather than tossing them in the water.   

Want to help ducks? 5 tips: 

Hey, while you’re here, we’d like to encourage you to turn your concern for wild ducks into some simple actions that will truly help ducks! Here are five things you can start doing today to help ducks: 

1. Use or compost old bread.

A recent study found that the majority of people feeding wild ducks bread did so primarily because they didn’t want to waste their old bread. While reducing food waste is a noble aim, there are better ways to do it than feeding old bread to ducks, especially if it’s moldy. (Common bread molds like aspergillus can kill ducks.) 

If your bread is simply stale, turn it into breadcrumbs, bread pudding, or croutons. If it’s moldy, compost it and turn it into soil. 

2. Support waterfowl rescue operations. 

Volunteer or donate at your nearest waterfowl rescue operation. Once again, here’s a helpful list of waterfowl rescue operations in the United States. 

If you use Amazon, you can even automate this process so a fraction of each purchase you make goes to a designated non-profit waterfowl rescue organization. (We donate to Carolina Waterfowl Rescue.)

3. Practice good hygiene with your furry pets.

Whether you’re walking next to a duck pond or at home, always pick up and dispose of your dog’s waste. Also, litter-train your cats.

As we learned in our interview with Greenville County Soil & Water Conservation District, pet pollution is a massive, underreported cause of poor water quality and pathogen load, which directly impacts ducks and other aquatic lifeforms. 

4. Clean up litter from waterways. 

Plastic, foil, and other trash is a major problem in waterways. Bring a bag with you to the local pond, and pick up any trash you see. Even better: organize regular litter cleanup outings.

Even if a duck can’t eat a plastic bottle today, that bottle will eventually break down into smaller particles (microplastics) that pose numerous health risks to ducks and other aquatic life. 

5. Keep learning. 

Nature is amazing — and you’re part of it. The more you learn and deeply engage with nature, the more you’ll care about it and want to take thoughtful measures to care for it, ducks included.   

We hope this article answers your questions about what to feed wild ducks — and why!

Thanks for caring, 

Tyrantfarms     

what to feed wild ducks pinterest image

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