What do Ducks and Other Wildfowl Eat?

Treat Foods for Wild Birds

Illustration of what to feed ducks

Illustration: Hugo Lin. © The Spruce, 2018

If you ask most birders when they had their first personal interaction with a wild bird, many would likely say it was when they fed the ducks at a local park or pond as a child. Many conservationists and city officials debate whether feeding wild birds is a good idea or not. Despite this difference of opinion, if you feel the inclination to pass along some treats to ducks or geese, it helps to know what foods are healthy choices.

Debate About Feeding Wild Birds

The issue of whether it is alright to feed ducks, geese, swans, and other waterfowl is a topic of controversy among bird enthusiasts, conservationists, and park officials. Myths are swirling around what happens when you feed wild birds. Some believe that feeding the birds will stop their migration. Whether they are hand-fed or not, some waterfowl species are already year-round residents of city parks and similar habitats.

Some people believe the misconception that waterfowl do not have their natural foods at hand in the parks and urban ponds. In reality, they are capable of fending for themselves, finding their food in the wild, and do not require human handouts to survive, no matter the season or how much they beg for treats.

One thing the experts all agree on is that too much feeding is unhealthy and can create excess waste and pollution that can destroy habitats and harm birds and other wildlife. Also, leftover, uneaten food can attract rodents, create unpleasant odors, and spread diseases. Some birds that are fed too often can become aggressive and may become a nuisance if they overpopulate a small area.

Birders also agree if you must give ducks or any other wild birds a treat—and no posted notices or local ordinances discourage the practice—then nutritious treats are the best choice to offer.

1:07

Watch Now: What Do Ducks Eat?

Duck Food to Avoid

The most common items people feed to ducks and waterfowl are often the least nutritious and most unhealthy. Bread, chips, crackers, donuts, cereal, popcorn, and similar bread-type products or junk food scraps are not the right foods for birds.

Feeding ducks bread is bad because the food has little nutritional value and can harm ducklings’ growth. The uneaten remnants often pollute waterways and attract vermin and other pests. Some people may feed ducks their leftover stale or moldy bread, which should never be fed to the birds. Several types of mold can be fatal to waterfowl.

Good Foods for Ducks

Fortunately, you can offer many other healthy, safe, and nutritious foods to omnivorous birds like ducks, geese, and swans. The best foods have nutrients, minerals, and vitamins that the birds need for healthy growth and development. Many of these foods are similar to the insects, mollusks, seeds, grains, and plants the birds will forage for on their own. The best foods include:

  • Cracked corn
  • Wheat, barley, or similar grains
  • Oats (uncooked; rolled or quick)
  • Rice (plain white or brown, cooked or uncooked, whole or instant)
  • Milo seed
  • Birdseed (any type or mix)
  • Grapes (cut in half or quartered if very large)
  • Nut hearts or pieces (any type but without salt, coatings, or flavoring)
  • Frozen peas or corn (defrosted, no need to cook)
  • Earthworms (fishing bait or dug from the garden)
  • Mealworms (fresh or dried)
  • Chopped lettuce or other greens or salad mixes
  • Vegetable trimmings or peels (chopped into small pieces)

Duck feed pellets or poultry starter pellets are other great options. You can get poultry feed from farming or agricultural supply stores. These pellets are the same food that some parks and zoos may offer in coin-operated vending machines.

Illustration of what to feed ducks
The Spruce / Hugo Lin

Tips for Feeding Ducks

If you want to feed the ducks or waterfowl at local ponds, do it rarely. An occasional visit here or there is better than regular visits. If you feed them regularly, they are likely to get excessive food. Other tips include:

  • Stop feeding the birds if they appear uninterested or are leaving the food uneaten. Leftover food can quickly rot and attract unwanted pests.
  • Avoid feeding the ducks if other visitors are already offering treats. Too much food can lead to health problems and uneaten leftovers.
  • Ducks do not chew. No matter what foods you provide, only offer foods in bite-sized pieces that the birds can easily consume without choking or struggling.
  • Be wary of birds that approach closely; they can get aggressive, particularly larger waterfowl such as swans and geese.
  • Litter can hurt birds and the environment; dispose of all trash properly, including bags, twist ties, plastic clips, and any unsuitable or moldy scraps.
  • Do not allow pets or children to chase or disturb the ducks, particularly young birds or families. It can stress out the birds or cause injuries (to you and the birds).
  • Be aware of local ordinances and obey laws that restrict or prohibit feeding ducks or waterfowl. If you disregard the law, you can face fines or penalties.