Ducks. The name is a general term used to refer to a group of species in the Anatidae family of waterfowl. As you might already know, this family also includes swan and geese, but ducks are unique in some of their characteristics, hence the distinction.
One should not confuse ducks for similar fowl, like loons or coots, although they are all primarily aquatic birds that will normally congregate in salt and freshwater areas.
Ducks are smaller than geese and swan, and while their necks are long, they are nowhere near the immense length of a swan neck. As they are similar to these other water bird varieties, one might also assume that they share some dietary characteristics.
Is this the case, however? Let’s look at where the duck, specifically youngling ducks, turn to for nutrition. In short: what do baby ducks eat?
Baby Duck Eating Patterns (What Do Baby Ducks Eat?)
Upon their hatching, baby ducks will live off the leftover yolk from their eggs for a few days’ time. Baby ducks don’t stay young for long, and will quickly outgrow this baby diet and start eating a diet that more closely matches an adult duck.
As they follow their mother closely, they’ll start by loading up on protein-rich foods. This includes insects, snails, worms, and crustaceans. This influx of nutrients helps them grow. As ducks mature rapidly, it only takes a few weeks for a small duckling to outgrow this phase and take on the diet of an adult duck, which incorporates a larger amount of plant matter.
Overall, ducks are omnivores and will eat just about anything they can find. It is normal to see grown ducks feasting on a range of grasses, water plants, fish, insects, worms, amphibians, and tiny mollusks. The particulars of this diet can vary depending on the duck’s normal habitat.
Ducks that reside in the woods, for example, will eat the things they can find in the forest. Fruit, nuts, and grasses make up a large portion of these ducks’ diet, as it is what is most readily available to them. Ducks that stick to the water will have a propensity for aquatic greenery and consume the small animals that reside in or around these water plants.
Park ducks, those that live in fields or recreational areas close to humans, will load up on grasses, seeds, and grains. Other ducks have special adaptations that make them better suited for hunting, with varieties like the Merganser using their toothed bills to catch and devour fish. This wide range gives ducks a superior level of adaptability and enables them to survive in a diverse level of conditions.
Duck feeding habits can show even more variation that this, with dabbling ducks preferring to make meals of easy targets they can find on land or the surface of the water. These ducks will use their pecten, a comb-like adaptation on their beaks, to strain the surface water and separate the morsels they like to consume. They may also, at times, submerge themselves slightly (without completely upending) to get to some snacks below the surface of the water.
The Mallard is an excellent example of this kind of duck, with its diet consisting of a mix of animal and plant matter it can find near the surface of the water and near river banks. The Mallard is not a picky eater, though, and will vary its diet to match its conditions.
The Mallard’s foods of choice will vary based on what’s available, along with the time of year, where it is in the breeding cycle, and whether it is being outcompeted for a specific resource by another species. Mallards will consume all manner of seeds, water plants, roots, insects, crustaceans, and worms. With a preference for plant matter during the fall and winter months.
Female Mallards will consume mostly animal matter, but only when they are preparing to lay their eggs.
Diving ducks and so-called sea ducks go a step further. These ducks will fully submerge themselves in the water and have several adaptations to help them move better underneath the surface to seek out food. Their legs, for instance, are further back on their body, aiding with increased motility while submerged (but making them somewhat clumsy on land).
These ducks, like Goldeneyes, Smew, and the Merganser, will hunt down fish or crustaceans, along with whatever else they can find in the depths. Sea ducks even have salt glands that allow them to deal with the salt water (though the younger members of the species lack this ability until they mature). Then there are underwater ducks with wider, flatter beaks.
These ducks will dredge the bottom of the water, getting the aquatic weeds, worms, and insect larvae that rest at the bottom of some bodies of water. They might even score the odd frog or two, swallowing them whole with their large beaks.
Curiously, many ducks will eat sand, gravel, and tiny stones. You might guess that this provides them with no additional nutrition, and you would be correct. The stones and sand serve to help the ducks digest their food. As the mixture interacts with the bits of food they’ve consumed, its rough texture helps to break it down beyond what the duck’s stomach can achieve. Ducks need a steady influx of water to sustain themselves. In addition to providing sustenance, the water aids with digestion, much like the rocks.
In captivity, ducks will expand their diets even further. Many duck owners will provide their ducks with specialized duck feed to meet their nutritional requirements, which ducks take to quite well. For younger ducks, or female ducks ready to lay eggs, the feed is laced with increased amounts of protein. For normal adults, less protein is necessary.
Pet ducks will also chow down on fresh fruit and vegetables. Lettuce and tomatoes are a favorite, and cracked corn is also a suitable option (normal corn is harder for them to digest). They also enjoy small insects and worms purchased from pet stores, with mealworms and night crawlers being two of their favorites.
Creating an Optimal Duck Habitat
If you are interested in creating an environment at home that will be attractive to adult ducks or have considered raising young ducks to maturity, you should be prepared to provide them with the nutritional diversity they require. We’ve already informed you about the normal dietary requirements, but you should keep in mind that if you choose to nourish them with feed, you’ll need to trail off the amount of protein as they grow.
Usually, 20% protein is suitable for the first ten weeks, with 15% being appropriate for weeks ten through eighteen, and 16-18% necessary for the weeks after. You should always feed your ducks with water to help aid with their digestion and clean their beaks.
Ducks have a tendency towards messy eating, however, so prepare yourself to clean the water source on a regular basis. Never feed them bread. Bread can cause obesity and other health problems that will retard their development.
As for their environment, you should optimize this space for the duck’s comfort. The shelter should not just be a safe place from the elements and potential predators; it should also provide quiet and relaxation so they can retain a sound frame of mind. If you are keeping them in an enclosure, make sure that it is large enough for the ducks to fully spread their wings and groom themselves, and has ample ventilation for them to breath and stay cool.
If you would prefer to create an outdoor pond for ducks, you’ll have to follow some further guidelines to ensure their success. The area in which you build your duck pond(s) should be isolated. This means there is very minimal vehicle traffic and few predators that may come to enjoy a delicious duck dinner.
There should be a maximum amount of open space to give the ducks room to spread out and allow them to spot potential threats from a distance. Though you will also need to incorporate cover to keep your ducks out of sight from crafty hunters like raccoons and foxes. You should also keep the area free of useless plants that may repel the ducks, like Japanese Honeysuckle and Cattails.
The pond itself should be shallow, particularly if you want to attract dabbling ducks like Mallards. The pond should have sloping edges to make it easy for the ducks to get in an out. This will also make it easier to manage vegetation along the banks.
Ducks are a classification of waterfowl that are like geese and swans, but with a higher tendency to include animal matter in their diets. Ducks mature quickly, and while they might sustain themselves from the leftover egg yolk for a few days after hatching, their diet quickly changes to support the needs of their growing bodies. Young ducks will eat a natural diet high in protein, which consists of insects, crustaceans, and other small creatures.
As they mature, ducks will incorporate more plant matter into their diet, but maintain a taste for small animals throughout their lives. They are easy creatures to raise, provided you keep them well fed and watered. You’ll also need to tailor their environment for optimal growing conditions. You can learn more about raising young ducks to maturity courtesy of this detailed blog, or find out more about creating duck ponds here.