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What do ducks eat? - Learn the diets of dabbling and diving ducks

This commonly asked question has a variety of answers. However, one answer we can offer with certainty is: DO NOT FEED BREAD! Now, learn the different foods wild and domestic ducks eat.

A male Mallard swims in a creek.
What does this Mallard eat? It better not be bread...

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When it comes to ducks, food choices are often dependent on their feeding practices. In the birding world, ducks are either referred to as a dabbler or a diver, based on how they feed. Dabbling ducks often feed out of the water, but when they feed in the water, they tip forward, sticking their butts up in the air. Diving ducks frequently dip under the surface of the water, looking for food items.


We will break down some of the major food types for each of the diving and dabbling feeding types. If you want to learn more about a handful of duck species, check out our Top 5 Ducks!

 

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Learn waterfowl identification with this Crossley Guide!

 

What do dabbling ducks eat?

Dabbling ducks include the Mallard, teal, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, and wigeon. Gadwall have a diet of mostly vegetation, focusing on aquatic plants and seeds. During the breeding season, some Gadwall eat aquatic invertebrates. Teal and shovelers eat swimming invertebrates such as insects and their larvae, mollusks, and crustaceans. They also eat seeds and other plant material, but like the Gadwall, animal material makes up the majority of the diet while nesting. The Wood Duck, while not a dabbling duck, is known to eat fruit in addition to seeds and invertebrates.

The Northern Shoveler is a type of teal, another dabbling duck.
The Northern Shoveler is a type of teal, another dabbling duck.

However, the most important diet, as it relates to this often asked question, comes from the Mallard. Mallards are omnivorous and eat mostly animal foods, including insects such as midge larvae, dragonflies, and caddisfly larvae, other aquatic invertebrates such as snails and freshwater shrimp, with the occasional terrestrial earthworm. During the nonbreeding season, the Mallard's diet predominately consists of seeds from moist-soil plants, acorns, aquatic vegetation, or ag crops like corn, rice, barley, and wheat. Leftover grains and other ag foods usually dominate the Mallard's diet during fall migration and often during winter, depending on the relative availability of natural versus agricultural foods. During the winter, urban Mallards often rely entirely on human-provided food, such as bread or seeds. Why is the Mallard's diet so important? Keep reading!


Dabbling ducks have a wide variety in their diets, with Mallard's having the greatest variety. Dabbling ducks eat a lot of plant material, like seeds and fruit, and aquatic invertebrates, with some species taking advantage of crops like corn, rice, and wheat.

 

A spotting scope is a must for proper waterfowl enjoyment!

celestron regal m2 80 ed spotting scope
 

What do diving ducks eat?

Diving ducks include the scaup, mergansers, eiders, goldeneye, and scoters. Lesser and Greater Scaup consume both animal and plant matter. The proportions they consume are dependent on the season and availability. Included in the animal portion of scaup diets are small bivalves, snails, crustaceans, and aquatic insects and larvae