Many birders were first introduced to the joys of wildlife by feeding ducks bread at a local park or pond. While we may have thought this was an environmentally responsible and cute way to dispose of old or stale bread, offering bread to ducks is actually unhealthy and potentially dangerous for the birds, other wildlife, and even ourselves.
What Bread Is to Ducks
Bread and similar products such as crackers, rolls, chips, crisps, donuts, crusts, cereal, and popcorn are great sources of carbohydrates, but they offer little nutritional value for ducks, geese, swans, and other birds. In fact, bread is the equivalent to junk food for birds. Just like humans would suffer from a diet of nothing but candy and sugar, too much bread can lead ducks to obesity and malnutrition as well as many other problems.
Offered as a rare treat in extreme moderation, bread is not immediately harmful to ducks or birds, but that moderation is hard to judge. While one person or family may only feed the ducks once every few months, there may be many other families and individuals who are feeding the ducks bread far more frequently. Adding all these well-meaning feeders together can lead to a diet based almost solely on unhealthy bread products. Environmentally conscious birders will stop offering any bread or bread-like products to ducks to avoid nutritional problems and other issues caused by a carbohydrate-rich diet.
Watch Now: What Do Ducks Eat?
Why Bread Is Bad for Ducks
Not only can bread be fattening to ducks and make it harder for them to fly and otherwise evade predators, feeding ducks can also lead to other serious problems.
- Duckling Malnutrition: Ducklings require a varied diet and plenty of natural plants and insect proteins to mature properly. If ducks are regularly fed bread, ducklings will not receive adequate nutrition for proper growth and development. Furthermore, because ducks will eagerly seek out an easy food source such as human handouts, ducklings will not learn to recognize or forage for natural foods as easily.
- Overcrowding: Where an easy food source is abundant, ducks and other waterfowl will lay more eggs and the pond or lake will quickly become overcrowded. This makes it more difficult for the birds to seek out healthier food sources and increases the likelihood of territorial aggression. In overcrowded areas, predators can also thrive and will impact other bird populations, and diseases can quickly spread through large flocks as well.
- Pollution: When too much bread is offered to ducks, not all of it will be eaten. Soggy, uneaten bread is an eyesore and rotting bread can create noxious odors as well as lead to greater algae growth that can clog waterways and crowd out more desirable plants. This concentrates the pollution and can eventually eradicate fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and other life in the vicinity, making good food sources even scarcer.
- Diseases: Feeding ducks bread can increase the spread of diseases in two ways. First, a carbohydrate-rich diet leads to greater defecation, and bird feces easily harbor bacteria responsible for numerous diseases, including avian botulism. Second, moldy bread can cause aspergillosis, a fatal lung infection that can decimate entire duck and waterfowl flocks.
- Pest Attraction: Rotting food leftover from sated ducks will attract other unwelcome pests such as raccoons, rats, mice, and insects. These pests can also harbor additional diseases that can be dangerous to humans and threatening to other wildlife.
- Loss of Natural Behavior: When birds become accustomed to handouts, they lose their natural fear of humans and may become aggressive in order to get more food. Their loss of fear can also cause other dangers, such as a willingness to cross busy roads in order to reach picnickers, dumpsters, and other likely sources of food.
What to Feed Ducks Instead of Bread
Wild ducks and waterfowl can live longer, healthier lives by relying on natural food sources such as aquatic plants, seeds, grasses, nuts, and insects, rather than taking handouts from well-meaning humans. If you still want to feed the ducks, which can be an enchanting experience, there are many healthier alternatives to offer instead of bread. Great foods to feed ducks include:
- Grapes (cut in half to prevent choking)
- Cracked corn, barley, oats, birdseed, or other grains
- Frozen peas or corn kernels (defrosted first, but no need to cook)
- Duck feed pellets available from farm supply stores
Don’t Waste Bread
For many people, feeding ducks bread is not only a way to interact with wildlife, but it is also a handy way to dispose of old, stale bread without just tossing it in the trash. However, there are many other useful ways to dispose of unwanted bread, including:
- Adding bread to a compost pile to create mulch and fertilizer for bird-friendly landscaping
- Trying stale bread recipes, such as bread pudding or homemade dressing/stuffing
- Toasting stale bread for homemade croutons, bread crumbs, or garlic toast
- Using stale bread for crafts, such as making cookie-like decorations or play dough
Of course, the best way to use up stale bread without feeding it to ducks is to avoid having any leftover bread in the first place. Bread can be easily frozen until needed, or birders can monitor their menus and shopping lists to ensure there are no leftovers that would be tempting to feed to ducks.
Burt, Sara A. et al. Nutritional Implications Of Feeding Free‐Living Birds In Public Urban Areas. Journal Of Animal Physiology And Animal Nutrition, vol 105, no. 2, 2020, pp. 385-393. doi:10.1111/jpn.13441
Type E Botulism Outbreaks: A Manual For Beach Managers And The Public. University Of Wisconsin-Madison.
Aspergillosis. Michigan DNR Wildlife Disease Laboratory.