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Daily Diet, Treats and Supplements for Ducks

A duck drinking water.

Updated September 2, 2020

If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special duck residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of ducks at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided. While ducks are all individuals who have their own preferences and needs, there are some general principles to consider in their physiology and nutritional needs!

When it comes to feeding ducks, you may be overwhelmed initially by the number of choices and amount of information out there. By first understanding what a duck’s essential needs are, you can make informed decisions about how to feed and supplement the flock and have the knowledge to backup your choices.

What Does A Duck Need?

Like every animal, ducks have their own specific nutritional needs that must be met. In order to help them be happy and healthy birds, ducks require the following:

Protein (Amino Acids)

Ducks, like other poultry, do not actually require “protein” but the individual amino acids contained in dietary proteins. The proteins in the diet are broken down during digestion to amino acids which are absorbed and used by the duck to make their own body proteins, such as those in muscle and feathers. Certain of these amino acids must be supplied in the diet because the duck cannot make them from other sources. These are called essential amino acids. When formulating foods for ducks, primary attention is paid to meeting the ducks essential amino acid requirements. Protein levels that meet the ducks amino acid requirements may vary slightly, depending upon the amino acid content of the ingredients used in each formulation.

Grains

Grains include any small, hard grass family seeds like oats, corn, or wheat. They provide Vitamin B, Vitamin E, and Phosphorus, if you give them whole grains. If you scatter a whole grain duck scratch across the yard, ducks get a dual benefit of food and some foraging fun! Whole grain scratch is much better than an only cracked corn scratch. However, scratch grains should only make up around 10% of a duck’s total diet as they are not nutritionally complete sources of food. It’s critical to know that grains must not be allowed to get wet and moldy. This can be fatal to ducks.

Greens

Among many benefits, fresh greens provide Vitamin E, important for a duck’s immune system, along with Riboflavin, Vitamin A, and Calcium. If you have a yard, greens are very simple to provide for ducks. Let them out onto your grass and they’ll get some of these benefits, but do not allow ducks onto your yard if it’s treated with pesticides! You can also feed ducks healthy greens and some green scraps, but avoid known poisonous greens (see “Things that are toxic to ducks”, below).

Insoluble Grit

Not to be confused with the diner classic, insoluble grit refers to small hard rocks and pebbles that a duck will swallow as an aid to digest food in their gizzard since they lack teeth. If birds are free range, they’ll take care of their grit needs on their own. If in confinement, you’ll have to provide them with hard grit at least once a month. Make sure that this grit is the appropriate size for the bird in your care; a duckling can’t handle anything much bigger than sand! You can also leave a bucket of insoluble grit out for ducks to access freely as they desire. If ducks lack grit, they can develop digestive issues such as an impacted crop.

Niacin

Ducks require nearly twice as much niacin in their diets than chickens in order to remain healthy. This is important to know if you are currently feeding ducks chicken feed, as it will not provide enough niacin needed for a duck. Niacin deficiency in ducklings is particularly problematic and can lead to serious leg and joint issues and even death. Be sure the diet you are feeding your resident ducks is a special duck formula or you are supplementing their diet with niacin.

Calcium & Vitamin A

‘If a bird is eating a lot of greens or formulated food, they’ll get plenty of both vitamin A and calcium. However, you should monitor ducks’ eggshells. A soft shell means they could be calcium deficient, and may require supplementation to protect them from reproductive illness and osteoporosis (though there are other things that could cause soft-shelled eggs, so you should always get your veterinarian’s opinion first). Actively laying ducks require up to three times as much calcium as non-laying ducks, so it’s important to have extra calcium sources on the ready, including natural sources like black oil sunflower seeds.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is typically produced in a duck’s body through exposure to sunlight (just like in people!). If you live in an area with long stretches of dark or cloudy weather such as the Pacific Northwest, it’s important to provide a duck with extra supplementation of Vitamin D, especially in Vitamin D3 form. A Vitamin D deficiency in ducks can lead to weak bones and shells. Their need for vitamin D significantly increases if they have inadequate levels of calcium and (or) phosphorous. Kelp is a popular natural source of Vitamin D for ducks.

Water

‘This should be a no-brainer, but ducks need fresh water every day! They require access to fresh water near their food as they often like to make use of the water to help them eat and prevent an impacted crop. Make sure to keep the water in or near their coop so it’s always easily available and ensure that it’s clean, because (probably like yourself), they won’t drink dirty water. Consider investing in a poultry fountain if you want to prevent water waste and maximize cleanliness, but you’ll need to offer an additional open water container for cleaning purposes.  In the winter, you have to make sure their water supply doesn’t freeze! Use a barn-safe water heater if necessary.

In addition to fresh drinking water, ducks need water for swimming and bathing. Ducks are particularly susceptible to botulism so it is important that their water supply is kept clean and well aerated. If you have provided them with an artificial pool, you will want to be sure to regularly remove dead leaves and other plants matter and be sure to drain and clean it regularly. If duck residents are lucky enough to have a natural pond, make sure the water is not polluted by household or industrial waste!

Types Of Food

There are a number of duck food brands on the market (though not nearly as many as there are for chickens). Many of them provide complete nutrition for ducks without any antibiotics, hormones, or animal byproducts. Food typically comes in pellet or granular form, which is preferable to mixed seed as it prevents ducks from picking and choosing (and missing out on essential nutrients).

It is preferable to choose a food made specifically for waterfowl, though chicken feed can be used. However, chickens and ducks while needing many of the same nutrients, require them in different ratios. If you temporarily have to use chicken food, you’ll want to purchase brewer’s yeast to add to the ducks’ feed because ducks, especially ducklings, require more niacin than chickens. You can ask your local feed store to order this if they don’t have it in stock, or order it online. One high quality, though expensive, brand of duck food is Mazuri. Scratch can be served as a treat or motivator for ducks, but should comprise no more than 10% of their diet, as it is not nutritionally complete. 

Moldy Food

Do not feed ducks old or moldy food, as this can have serious health consequences. Ducks are particularly sensitive to mycotoxins. Toxins in mold can cause serious damage to the digestive organs, liver, kidneys, muscles, and plumage, and can also reduce growth in ducks!

Comparing Different Commercial Domestic Duck Food Formulations

The following is a sortable, filterable reference guide to common commercial domestic duck food formulations. Please note that this is based on information provided by the suppliers and may be different than what is currently offered. Also please note that The Open Sanctuary Project does not endorse any product or brand, nor do we receive sponsorship from any product or brand.

Feeding “Layer” Ducks

Some duck breeds lay close to the same number of eggs as chickens typically exploited for eggs and may require a diet more similar to that of an actively laying chicken to make up for the high nutritional deficit created by egg-laying. A scratch grain-only diet may result in nutritional deficiencies. Some people choose to feed a “layer food” that advertises as being appropriate for ducks as well as chickens, such as Purina Layena SunFresh, or to offer a food such as Purina Flock Raiser SunFresh with additional free-choice calcium available.  Majestic Waterfowl recommends feeding a mix of Mazuri Waterfowl Maintenance and Mazuri Waterfowl Breeder, increasing the percentage of Breeder formula based on how much the ducks are laying. If you are feeding female ducks who are no longer laying due to age you may need to adjust their nutrition in terms of overall calorie or protein ratios. Drakes also do not typically need the extra protein or calcium that “layer” food provides. You should consider having a discussion with a qualified avian veterinarian about food recommendations for different kinds of ducks in your care.

Feeding Large Breed Ducks

As a special note, if you are caring for large breed ducks, such as “Jumbo Pekins” it’s important to offer a food that is lower in fat, protein, and calories.  Though Pekins are often referred to as “the broilers of the duck world,” and though they can grow quite large, they do not seem to face the same issues with self-regulation when it comes to food.  It’s best to closely monitor the weight and body conditions of every duck in your care, but pay extra attention to breeds typically exploited for their flesh, as obesity can cause foot and joint issues as well as other health conditions. 

Feeding Ducklings And Young Ducks

Do Not Feed Adult 'Layer' Food To Young Ducks

No adult “layer” food should ever be given to ducklings, not even as an emergency food source. It is toxically high in calcium to ducklings and will cause serious health problems, and even death. If you must provide emergency food, try a 1:1 ratio of oats and cornmeal, blended to a crumble consistency. This should only be used as a one-time emergency ration. Do not continue feeding this as it cannot meet a duckling’s nutritional needs.

Ideally, ducklings, should eat a waterfowl starter food. If this is unavailable, chick starter can be used on the condition that it must be supplemented with additional niacin and must be unmedicated. Without the supplemental niacin, ducklings can develop serious leg and joint disorders, often decreasing their lifespan. Niacin supplements can be purchased at many drugstores, or brewer’s yeast can often be found at animal food stores. If using a niacin supplement, add 100 to 150 mg of niacin per gallon of drinking water until 10 weeks of age. If using brewer’s yeast, add 2 to 3 cups per 10 pounds of food. 

Angel Wing

Angel Wing is a condition where flight feathers at the end of the bird’s wings twist upwards or outwards. This is generally caused by an unbalanced diet high in protein and carbohydrates. Ducklings are most susceptible to this condition. Care should be taken to provide a balanced diet. Call your veterinarian if you see any signs of this condition. If caught early, it can be treated.

If you cannot locate a duckling starter food, ducklings should be fed an 18-20% protein chick starter with a niacin supplement until 2-3 weeks of age. From 4 weeks until about 20 weeks, they should be moved to a lower protein food (14-15%), and when females are around 5 months old, they should be moved to a “laying” diet. You can provide chick scratch for ducklings as well, but it should only make up a small percent of their diet.

Finely-chopped green food like lettuce and dandelion greens can be put into the ducklings’ waterer to give them treats to fish for, as long as they also have access to insoluble grit. Be sure the water source is easily accessible, cannot be readily knocked over or stood in. 

Lock Down

If you have feeders out for ducks throughout the day, it’s highly suggested to lock them away at night, as they can be quick to attract rodents and insects which can quickly become a health issue for birds. Ducks aren’t likely to spend their evenings eating, so storing away food at night has no downsides.

Suggestions For Food Storage

In addition to feeding a high quality food, you must be sure to store the food properly to ensure your residents reap all the nutritional benefits.  Food will keep best if kept in a cool, dry, dark place. All food, including unopened bags, should be stored in tightly sealed metal cans or thick plastic bins to prevent rodents from getting into food.  You can contact the supplier to determine their food’s recommended shelf life, but in general properly stored bagged food will last about 3 months. Storing food too long or in undesirable conditions can not only lead to rancid or moldy food, but can also cause food to become depleted of vitamins and minerals.  Be aware that you should never feed rancid or moldy food to ducks as it can make them very sick.

Things That Are Toxic To Ducks

There are a number of plants and human food that should absolutely not be fed to ducks, due to toxins and substances that ducks cannot digest or tolerate.

Do not feed ducks the following:

  • Avocado, any part- contains the toxin persin
  • White potato, any part- contains the toxin solanine
  • Green tomato, as well as tomato leaves- contains the toxin solanine
  • Eggplant and pepper leaves- contains the toxin solanine
  • Green potatoes- contains the toxin solanine
  • Apple, apricot, cherry, peach, pear, plum SEEDS/PITS (fine if cored)- contains cyanide
  • Rhubarb, any part- contains oxalic acid which can lead to soft-shelled eggs. Toxic leaf.
  • Dried beans, raw, and bean plants (fine if sprouted)- contains phytohemagglutinin
  • Raw peanuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, and pecans- may inhibit protein absorption
  • Dry rice- can cause gut problems
  • Onions, any part- contains the toxin thiosulphate
  • Chocolate- contains the toxin theobromine
  • Coffee or tea- contains caffeine which is dangerous to ducks
  • Anything visibly moldy or rotten
  • Alcohol
  • Processed human foods, especially greasy, salty, or sweet foods
  • Anything sprayed with pesticides or herbicides

Additionally, you should limit feeding ducks the following things:

  • Spinach- the oxalic acid interferes with calcium absorption
  • Citrus- can interfere with calcium absorption
  • Iceberg lettuce- can cause diarrhea in large amounts, has little nutritional value

Poisonous Plants To Avoid

There are a number of plants that you should work to prevent ducks from accessing if you are keeping them in an open pasture. It’s important to familiarize yourself with these plants for the safety of the ducks in your care.

Most bulb-originating plants are toxic to birds, such as lilies, hyacinth, and daffodils.

  • Avocado
  • Azalea
  • Beans – castor beans, fava beans, scarlet runners, navy beans
  • Bird of Paradise
  • Bleeding Heart
  • Burdock
  • Buttercup
  • Cardinal Flower
  • Clematis
  • Coriander
  • Datura – Angels Trumpet
  • Delphinium
  • Dieffenbachia
  • Elderberry
  • English Ivy
  • Four ‘o Clock
  • Foxglove
  • Heliotrope
  • Hemlock
  • Holly
  • Honeysuckle
  • Horse Chestnut
  • Ivy
  • Jerusalem Cherry
  • Juniper
  • Larkspur
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Lupine
  • Milkweed
  • Mistletoe
  • Mock Orange
  • Monkshood
  • Morning Glory
  • Mushrooms (some)
  • Nettles
  • Nightshade
  • Oak
  • Parsley
  • Potato plants
  • Rapeseed
  • Rhubarb – leaves
  • Sorghum Grasses
  • Tobacco
  • Weeping Yew

For a more detailed list of things toxic to ducks, check out our resource here.

Appropriate Treats For Ducks

It’s good practice to have the occasional treat for the flock. This keeps them happy and can also serve as a motivator if you need them to go to a specific area. Some good treats include:

  • Fruit and vegetables (but avoid toxic, moldy, or rotten fruits and vegetables!)
    • Broccoli
    • Cucumbers
    • Corn – warmed frozen corn (not hot!)
    • Peas
    • Cooked beans
    • Kale
    • Lettuce – romaine lettuce is the most nutritious. Iceberg lettuce holds no nutrients for the ducks and should not be given with regularity. It can cause scours (diarrhea).
    • Sliced Apples – no seeds or cores
    • Pumpkin – chopped
    • Grapes – chopped
    • Watermelon
    • Berries – raspberry, blackberry, black raspberry, strawberries, and blueberries are good choices
    • Cantaloupe
    • Bananas
  • Oatmeal and other scratch grains, like cracked corn in moderation

*Keep in mind that these should be supplemental to their diet, not be the bulk of it!

Natural Supplements For Ducks

You should always consult with a veterinarian or avian expert when deciding how to treat duck health issues, as natural remedies rarely will work as the sole solution for many ailments, especially when it comes to pain or infections. However, there have been reported benefits from certain supplements added to a duck’s diet. Here are some natural supplements that you can employ alongside medical treatment in order to help out the flock:

  • Flaxseed and turmeric sprinkled on chopped grapes can help as an anti-inflammatory treatment and, when supplemented in the diet of ducklings, it was found to reverse the aflatoxin-induced liver damage.
  • Chopped or powdered garlic can be fed to help eliminate worm infestations
  • Bee Balm can be used to promote a strong immune system and respiratory health

There are many considerations when it comes to the daily needs and desires of a duck, but don’t get too stressed out over it! Stick with the basics at first and modify depending on what the birds in your care are looking for. They’ll let you know if changes have to be made!

SOURCES:

Waterfowl Care: Ducks And Geese | Farm Sanctuary

An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Animals in the Duck Industry | Humane Society Of The United States

What Should I Feed My Pet Ducks | RSPCA Knowledge Base 

Care And Feeding Of Pet Ducks | For The Birds Veterinary Hospital

The Majestic Monthly Issue 22 | Majestic Waterfowl

Angel Wing | Poultry DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

List Of Plants Toxic For Ducks And Chickens | Knoji (Non-Compassionate Source)

Turmeric | Poultry DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

Vitamin D Deficiency | Poultry DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

Bee Balm | Poultry DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)

Duck Nutrition | Cornell University (Non-Compassionate Source)

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on September 4, 2020

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