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What do ducks eat? The ultimate guide to feeding your duck

So what do ducks eat?

I have to admit something before we go any further…I am a goose person.  

Everybody seems to have bad memories of being chased and/or bitten by a rabid, overly protective, territorial dinosaur goose.

But me?  I’d choose geese any day of the week.

There is one duck breed that I absolutely adore and that’s the muscovy duck.  They don’t quack, they actual hiss (it’s cuter than it sounds), and they wag their tail when they’re happy!  

Adorable right?

muscovy duck
They’re a bit strange looking, but so sweet. Muscovy ducks make excellent moms.

But guess what…some people claim this type of duck is more closely related to the goose family than the duck family.  *facepalm emoji*

Still, it is classified as a duck and I love them.  We have also had Ancona ducks here at the ranch and they were fantastic little guys.  So colorful.  But dear Lord, the quacking.  Give me a hiss any day.

Whatever duck breed you choose, you of course are going to have the question: What do ducks eat?

What do ducks eat

Ducks are easy going fellows and I actually would recommend starting with a duck over a chicken for the new homesteader.

Basically, ducks have the same needs as a chicken, but they’re a bit tougher.

Like chickens, ducks eat a much wider variety of foods than we would expect although when in captivity, their dinner plate is often limited.  

This is why we will also discuss the treats and the extra goodies that your ducks eat or should eat if you want them to be happy

What should ducks eat

Ducks have different nutritional requirements depending on the age of the duck.  

This complicated chart shows just what must go into the proper feed for ducks through their duck lifespan.  

Probably a bit much for the new homesteader…or really any homesteader.

Minimum basic nutritional requirements of what ducks eat

Nutrient Starter Grower Breeder
Protein (%) 20-22 17-19 16
Calcium (%) 1 1 3
Fat (%) 5 5 5
Methionine + Cysteine(%) 0.76 0.77 0.80
Lysine 1.16 0.90 0.94
Arginine 0.94 1.0 0.60
Threonine 0.84 0.66 0.60
Phosphorus (%) 0.40 0.35 0.40
Manganese (mg/kg) 60 50 40
Niacin (mg/kg) 55 40 55
Pantothenic acid (mg/kg) 15 10 20
Pyridoxine (mg/kg) 3 3 3
Riboflavin (mg/kg) 10 6 10
Vitamin A (mg/kg) 3100 1720 4130
Vitamin D3 (mg/kg) 300 22.5 62.5
Vitamin K (mg/kg) 2.5 2 2.5
Energy (kcal/kg) 2900 3000 2750

Notice in the chart, that it’s broken into three sections: Starter, Grower and Breeder.

These are basically the three age ranges of ducks that have vastly different nutritional needs.  Well maybe not vastly different, but enough that the feed companies offer different duck feeds for each stage.

Starter Duckling Stage

In this stage, what ducks eat is starter feed.  Ducklings do 90% of their growing in the first 8 weeks of life, whereas it takes chickens 5 months to get to this size.  I usually feed our ducklings starter feed for 2 weeks, but some people will feed for the full 8 weeks.

what do ducks eat when ducklings

Grower Duck Stage

Ducks are (unsurprisingly) eating grower feed during the grower stage.  The ducklings have gained 90% of their size and their growth rate drops dramatically.  As does their protein need. Protein is expensive so, in short, grower feed is significantly cheaper.

Breeder Duck Stage

Breeder feed is for the full grown duck to eat.  It is lower in protein (and therefore cost), but it is higher in calcium to make strong eggs for the breeding duck.

Angel wing

I let my ducks eat starter feed for less than the full 8 weeks because starter feed is very high in protein.

One thing that both ducks and geese get from eating too much protein is something called Angel Wing.  This is when one or both of the duck’s wings twists outwards.  The wing sticks out even when the duck has it tucked to its side.

angel wing in a goose

This is believed to be genetics so don’t breed a bird with angel wing!  However, genes only predispose one to something.  With ducks, it’s the protein that triggers the angel wing to actually occur if the duck has angel wing genetics.

Good luck finding actual duck feed for them to eat

One of the sucky things that most people find when they raise ducks is that you can’t actually find duck feed. 

Fortunately, ducks can eat chicken feed and be ok.  

Chick starter is usually 18-20% protein and that’s about what a duckling needs to eat.

Here is something I heard when I first got ducks: DO NOT LET DUCKS EAT MEDICATED FEED.

What I was told was that ducks tend to eat a ton of food at once and the little guys could kill themselves scarfing down too many antibiotics at once.  There are also some antibiotics that ducks can’t handle and will kill them.

This appears to be a myth that is based partly on the use of a coccidiostat in thick feed called Amprolium (not an antibiotic-a thiamine blocker).  It is considered safe for ducks, but if a duck eats too much Amprolium, it can overdose and die.

Sulfa antibiotics are not safe for ducks and this is most likely where the advice originates from. However, these drugs aren’t used in the United States anymore.

My advise?  DO NOT LET DUCKS EAT MEDICATED FEED.  First of all, ducks don’t need coccidiostat like chickens do.  Second, there is still a possibility of overdosing.  It’s small, but why take the risk?  Third, let’s not contribute to antibiotic resistance anymore than we need to.

Ducks need to eat Niacin

Chickens need less Niacin that ducks, so you risk your duck getting a Niacin deficiency when the duck eats chicken feed.   Chicken feed is lower in Niacin than duck feed. 

I highly suggest adding this B vitamin to your duck’s food.  It’s easy enough.  Just buy some brewers yeast for ducks to eat mixed in with their feed.

Ducks can eat their fill of niacin by adding brewer’s yeast to their feed at a rate of about 1/2 cup of brewer’s yeast per 10 pounds of feed.

*Note:  If your ducks are eating mash, you should moisten it slightly with water so it’s easier for them to eat.

brewers yeast for ducks

This brand is approved for use in ducks and it’s pretty cheap too.

Ducks need to eat Grit

Ducks don’t have teeth and instead they use grit to grind up their food.  

Grit is small rocks and sand, which they will naturally get if you have them in an outside pen.

If your ducks are foraging outside every day, you don’t need to feed them grit.  

Also, if they’re in a brooder or inside and they eat absolutely nothing besides commercial feed, they still don’t need grit.  Commercial feed breaks apart with their saliva and they don’t need grit to chew it up.

I would not suggest the use of Oyster shell for ducks to use as grit.  Ducks have a lower calcium requirement than chickens do.  Just use free feed chicken grit.

Only use chicken grit if your ducks don’t get to go outside much.

How much do ducks eat

Ducks eat quick and digest quick.  With my own ducks, I just leave their food out and they always have it.

If you don’t leave feed out then they need to be fed at least three times a day and I would suggest five times a day.  For the backyard duck owner, this is unrealistic.  Just leave free choice food for them.

I also suggest a treadle feeder for ducks so they don’t make an absolute mess…that’s a duck’s super power.  Messes.

If you leave an open bowl or bucket, the ducks will get in it, poop in it, knock it over and generally destroy it.  Feed is expensive.  You don’t want your ducks eating your hard earned cash anymore than they already do.

What do ducks eat in the wild

Ducks are the foodies of the animal world.  They eat quite the variety of things in the wild.  Ducks eat aquatic vegetation such as wild rice, wild celery, coontail, pondweed and widgeon grass.  

Obviously these are difficult feeds for a farmer, let alone a backyard duck owner, to feed their ducks.

In general, ducks are omnivorous which means they eat both vegetables and meats.  There is nothing a duck enjoys more than a slug and they also go after fish, frogs and other critters. 

According to Dr. Thomas E. Moorman, “Gadwalls and American wigeon relish the leafy portions of aquatic vegetation. Green-winged teal, northern pintails and mallards prefer the seeds produced by wetland plants. Canvasbacks, redheads and scaup feed heavily on roots and tubers, while ring-necked ducks consume more leafy plant material and seeds.”

What do ducks eat naturally

Foods ducks eat naturally include:

  • Small fish and fish eggs
  • Snails, worms, slugs, and mollusks
  • Small crustaceans such as crayfish
  • Grass, leaves, and weeds
  • Algae and aquatic plants and roots
  • Frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, and other amphibians
  • Aquatic and land insects
  • Seeds and grain
  • Small berries, fruits, and nuts

What do ducks eat in ponds

Do ducks eat duckweed?

Yes, ducks eat duckweed!

There was an experiment done where scientists looked at the effects of ducks eating duckweed.  

Duckweed is a fairly easy pond plant for farmers to grow, so it would be a good crop for duck farmers.

Sadly, they found that if ducks only ate duckweed, it would kill them.  The study didn’t explain why, but I assume it was a nutrient imbalance.  

However, when the ducks ate a diet of 50% duckweed, they did great!  

The ducks didn’t grow quite as fast and big as ducks on a commercial diet, but the cost of growing them to nearly the same size cost almost 50% less than the commercial diet.  

Way more bang for the duck…er I mean buck. 

According to the study:

  • Duckweed has a high content of organic matter and protein but it has low digestibility. Ducks are, however, unable to receive the entire nutrient content from the duckweed. 
  • Low DM and crude protein digestibility resulted in poor growth performances and indicated that the ducks could not be reared when fed on duckweed only. 
  • Although the replacement of 50% feed by duckweed reduces performance parameters, the carcass characteristics are not influenced.
  • Replacement of 50% of the control diet through feeding duckweed under confinement or through grazing fresh duckweed reduced the feed costs. 
  • Farmers may produce duckweed in water lagoons at their homesteads and/or may collect it from natural sources to supply as feed to their ducks. This will help to reduce feed costs by about 50%.

Another study found that since duckweed contained 38.6% crude protein, it made a great omelet replacement for soybeans used as a protein source in commercial feed.

What do ducks eat as a pet

So that’s a lot of great information about feeding ducks in the wild and in commercial systems, but what about pet duck breeds?

Feed pet duck breeds lower protein

For pet duck breeds, feeding them many types of chicken feeds or even a duck raiser ration can provide pet ducks with too high of protein.  

There are some potential negatives to feeding pet duck breeds too much protein, the first one being Angel wing.  The second, if fed high protein long term, is kidney issues.  

If you are raising ducks for meat, Angel wing doesn’t matter.  It’s not painful for the duck, it’s just us humans don’t really like it.  Plus it could be harder for a pet duck breed to escape a predator.

In other words, raising meat ducks, you will want them to grow big, fast and they won’t be around long enough to develop high protein issues.

What do ducks like to eat: Treats

What do ducks eat for treats?  If you are raising a commercial flock, you usually don’t spend a lot of time spoiling your ducks.

Pet ducks are lucky quackers who get spoiled.

It’s important to know what a duck can eat though because even a pet duck can’t eat just anything.

Feeding bread to ducks

We can’t talk about duck treats without mentioning feeding bread to ducks.  

Bread, for ducks, is similar to bread for humans.  In small amounts, it isn’t harmful, maybe even beneficial in some aspects and it makes us humans as happy as feeding bread to ducks makes them happy.

However, just like for us humans, too much bread can make us fat and sick.

Bread can reduce feed costs significantly and can be a valuable part of duck feeding, if used in their feed ration correctly.  

You should never feed bread to ducks under the age of 2 weeks.

Bread’s protein content is about 9% and can be used up to 40% of the total feed ingredients.  It can replace equal amounts of crushed grain.

Please notice the word replace.

I did not say in addition to.

what do ducks eat? feeding bread to ducks
People could be hurting birds by overfeeding bread

You can’t add significant amounts of bread to a duck’s feeding regime.  You would have to mix up your own feed rations if you want to feed bread to ducks and keep them healthy.

As a treat, you can give your ducks small amounts occasionally, but it shouldn’t be a consistent thing.

Like us humans, high protein, high carbohydrate products causes issues.  Feeding bread to ducks cause them to grow fast and twist their bones into Angel Wings.

In the wild, flocks of ducks who aren’t fed treats do not get angel wing.  So, keep this in mind and feed treats sparingly.

Feed greens as duck treats

Unlike bread, greens are a much better alternative duck feed and something ducks still like to eat.

The best green treat is letting your ducks out into your lawn or pasture.  Green grass is a duck favorite.

Veggies and fruits are great duck treats with watermelon, strawberries, lettuce, peas and tomatoes being the favorite treats for my personal ducks.

Even healthy greens should still be considered a treat.

Unless your ducks are out on a true mixed pasture, their treats are likely not the proper nutritional ratios that their balanced commercial feeds provide.  

Too many treats can cause a nutritional imbalance, even healthy ones.

Ducks should be similar to what ducks eat in the wild.

What can ducks eat list

Here are some ideas:

  • Cooked pumpkin (chickens do better with raw pumpkin than ducks) 
  • Cracked corn (big favorite)
  • Grains
  • Uncooked oats
  • Weeds like Chickweed or duckweed
  • Milo
  • Black oil sunflower seeds (a huge favorite)
  • Birdseed
  • Chopped salad or greens
  • Watercress
  • Mealworms – These are high in protein so, again, not too many or you’re risking Angel Wing!
  • Fresh fruit (Watermelon, grapes halved, banana, apple (without seeds), peaches, blueberries and blackberries)
  • Veggies (Peas, carrots, cooked green beans, sweet corn is a favorite)
  • Cooked eggs-boiled or scrambled

Likewise, here is an even more comprehensive what can ducks eat list. 

Once again, I emphasize you should not feed ducks too many treats. Their treats shouldn’t be any more than 10% of their daily intake.

what do ducks eat what can ducks eat list

What do ducks eat in winter

Here at the ranch, we don’t find that our ducks need to eat very differently in the winter.

Having said that, I will note that we are in Southern California and it doesn’t get as cold as say, Minnesota.

We give our ducks free choice feed to eat and consumption increases slightly.  

I feel like this is all our ducks need to get by in the winter.  

On the other hand, we do tend to give them treats a bit more often.  Some cracked corn is a great winter treat.  

For the millionth time, remember that treats like extra corn, change their nutritional balance.  Too much of it and you can create a significant imbalance.

Many farmers (and scientists) say that carbs and fat is what keeps animals warm in the winter.

However, we prefer to keep our animals warm so that they don’t need to eat more expensive feed.

Suet for winter

It is very common to feed suet to chickens over the winter in order to help keep them warm.  Suet is some combination of fat and carbs.  

Ducks seem to have a harder time digesting fat and it can impact their crop.  

I would avoid suet and opt for one of the many other great treats the ducks love to eat.

What can ducks not eat list

I’ve already shared a list of food that ducks can eat, but here is a what ducks cannot eat list.

  1. Bread:  As mentioned above, bread can quickly through a balanced feed out of balance.  It’s low in nutrition and even dangerous in large quantities.  Use this as a rare treat if at all.
  2. Cat food:  I have seen so many people recommend cat food as a treat.  However, cat food is high in Methionine, which could actually kill your ducks.
  3. Spinach:  A great treat in small amounts.  In large amounts, the oxalates in spinach can prevent calcium absorption.  In laying ducks, this could cause egg problems, but it can also be dangerous in all animals, including humans.
  4. Avocado, chocolate and raw green potatoes are toxic to ducks.
  5. Onions are toxic to ducks in large quantities.
  6. Dry or undercooked beans contain a chemical called hemagglutinin, which is toxic to ducks.
  7. Citrus is acidic and can cause ulcers and other digestive problems if fed to ducks.
  8. Junk foods are dangerous to ducks and  to you lol.  Ducks think this food is as tasty as you do, but it’s not good for them.  Don’t give it to ducks even as an occasional treat.

What do I recommend for ducks to eat?

Over the years, I have developed my personal program for what my ducks should eat.  I use a flock raiser or 20% non-medicated chick start for the first two weeks only.

For the next three months, I feed a 16% protein grower feed.

For an adult duck after week 14, I continue to feed a 16% grower feed, but I supplement my egg laying ducks with high protein treats such as meal worms.  Usually, I do this if egg production decreases or in the winter.

Having said that, your duck feeding situation may be different than mine.  You may have a pond or a pasture or run a bakery with lots of extra breads.

If this is the case, it might be worth your time to contact an extension agent to develop a feeding program particular to your unique duck situation.

What do ducks eat summary

  1. First, start your ducks off with chick starter or if you’re lucky enough to find it, Duckling Waterfowl feed.
  2. If you’re like the majority of us and have to use chick starter, choose non-medicated and supplement with Niacin-Brewer’s Yeast.
  3. Give healthy treats such as veggies, fruits and greens.
  4. Add grit if they don’t spend a good amount of time outside or if you are feeding them anything but commercial feed.
  5. Don’t feed anything on the what not to feed ducks list such as chocolate.  Why would anyone feed their duck chocolate??
  6. Last, feed free choice or a minimum of 3 times a day

What do you feed your ducks? Is there anything you would change in my duck feeding advice?

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