Should you give your ducks “treats?”
If you were to just ask me, the answer would be a thundering yes that rings out across our pastures and gardens and bounces off the chicken coop wall and echoes back as a ringing “yes yes yes yes.”
Some poultry fanciers say that treats are nonessential. That treat-giving will mess up your ducks’ diet. That it might cause protein deficiencies and iron deficiencies and egg binding and aggression and death and disease and all sorts of horrible things.
To be sure, you need to be careful with treats. You can kill your ducks with them. I think the risks are sometimes exaggerated, but they’re not lying when they say it might cause this and that.
But that’s no reason to avoid them. Treats are more than an “extra” — they are valuable and, dare I say it, important.
1. Ducks love treats.
Now, that’s not a good enough reason by itself. I like potato chips, hot dogs, and Milky Way bars, but that doesn’t mean I eat them. (Well, I maybe eat potato chips once a month.) Taking good care of your ducks is more important than having fun with them.
But it’s a reason. It’s part of the fun of owning ducks. Watching their eyes light up. Watching them run up to you and your treats as fast as their little feet can take them. Happy quacking. Fruit-smeared bills and bellies.
Treats make ducks happy, which makes us as caretakers happy. As long as we’re careful not to harm them, treats are a positive thing.
2. Treats improve their quality of life.
For ducks that live in a confined run, in particular, “treat” foods break the monotony. Ducks have a natural instinct to forage, to hunt for food, and that instinct isn’t fulfilled by pellets in a bowl. They are supposed to spend most of their energy and time looking for food. Boredom can lead to feather picking, bullying, fighting, and other unnatural and detrimental behaviors.
There are three things you can give your ducks to alleviate this: plentiful swimming water, space to explore and forage, and diverse foods.
Chasing feeder fish or floating peas in their pool, pecking at a hanging cabbage, tearing up a tomato — it’s all intellectually stimulating and good for your ducks.
3. Treats are good for your ducks.
I don’t believe ducks should eat exclusively dry, dead, processed food. Yes, it has roughly the right amount of copper, the correct ratios of lysine and methionine, the “ideal” percentage of fat. Yes, synthetic antioxidants and vitamins are added back in.
But commercial feed is still highly processed.
It’s not fresh, whole, live, or raw.
It often contains minimums of nutrients, rather than ideal amounts. (That isn’t bad, per se, but it means giving your ducks supplementary foods that are high in calcium, protein, and vitamin A, to name a few, is beneficial, not “neutral.”)
Nutrients are often sourced as cheaply as possible. The exact recipe of poultry feed tends to change based on whatever ingredients are cheapest at the time.
It often contains numerous additives and preservatives.
Most poultry feed has GMO corn and soy.
Grains lose much of their vitamin content within days of milling. This why whole grains are much healthier for humans and animals alike.
Poultry feed also oxidizes and goes rancid much faster than you might think.
There are many other things that could be discussed and many other reasons why commercial feed is not perfect. But it’s a subject that’s beyond the scope of this article and I’m not knowledgeable enough about it to provide a detailed analysis.
That’s not to say that commercial feeds are wrong or bad. In most cases, they should still be the bulk of your ducks’ diet.
But I believe that animals and humans alike should be eating live, fresh foods when possible.
4. It can help you reduce food waste.
The statistics are shocking and ridiculous. It’s been estimated that Americans waste nearly 120 billion pounds of food per year, around 325 pounds per person.
A lot of this food waste is perfectly edible. And some of what we would rather not eat, such as cucumber peels, wilted lettuce, and watermelon rinds, is still fine for ducks and chickens.
Instead of wasting food scraps, feed some of them to your ducks.
The Vermont Compost Company raises layer hens that are fed exclusively on food scraps and waste—showing that it’s possible to eliminate purchased feed and grain entirely.
5. It reduces your feed costs.
Adding food scraps, homegrown ducky snacks, and other cheap sources of food to your ducks’ diet can reduce the amount of money you spend on duck feed, which is always nice.
Read more: 15 Ways to Reduce Duck Feed Costs
Why you need to be careful with treats
Treats are not a complete diet.
Commercial feed contains all the protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins your ducks need. A blueberry doesn’t. Lettuce doesn’t. Peas don’t. All of those together don’t. Even if you add mealworms, it still won’t be a complete diet.
Indiscriminate, ignorant, or careless treat-giving is indeed a common cause of health problems in pet ducks. If your ducks are frequently egg-bound, or have problems molting, or have other health problems, consider avoiding treats for a time — not permanently, necessarily, but at least for a few months — to be sure your ducks are getting the nutrients they need.
I once caused a protein deficiency (and probably other issues that were less obvious) in my flock by feeding too much whole oats and not enough regular feed. I realized this when I noticed that some young growing ducks had weak, droopy wings. Adding protein and cutting the oats solved the problem.
Even if you haven’t noticed any problems, it’s best to only offer healthy treats, or at least make sure that the vast majority of the treats you give your ducks are healthy. It’s also important to be careful to offer them with moderation and in a balance.
How much treats should ducks have
The general rule of thumb to avoid risking causing dietary imbalances is to make sure treats comprise 10% of your ducks’ diet or less.
What does “10% of the diet” look like?
Most ducks eat between 1/4 and 1/2 a pound of food per day, or four to eight ounces. 10% of that is 0.4 to 0.8 ounces a day. That’s not much.
If you don’t give your ducks treats every day, then it’s not a big deal if they sometimes get more than an ounce per duck. If you do give them treats every day, then try to stick to around one ounce per duck — if you want to be conservative and avoid risks.
I would recommend trying to follow it if you just want to give your ducks yummy “treats” for fun, for their enjoyment and yours, without worrying too much about what you give them. You shouldn’t cause any problems if you follow the 10% rule—well, you might if you give your ducks donuts every day as 10% of their diet. But sticking to decent/okay/good foods, you’ll be fine.
But maybe you’re interested in doing more.
Can it be safe to give your ducks more than 10% of their diet in “treats?” Twenty percent? Fifty percent? A hundred percent?
Of course it’s possible. Purchased feeds haven’t been around long — only about 150 years. For centuries, millennia even, domestic ducks and chickens have done fine on homegrown and homemade feeds.
But it shouldn’t be done haphazardly or without careful research.
Don’t blindly follow online “recipes” for “DIY duck/chicken feed” — many of them are severely lacking.
The topic of making your own duck feed and perhaps even eliminating purchased feed is beyond the scope of this article.
But the main things to keep in mind are:
- Variety is vital. The more variety in the foods you offer, the more balanced they will be.
- Try to mimic a duck’s natural diet by maintaining a reasonable ratio of vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, and animal feeds.
Foods you can feed your ducks
Here’s a short list of foods that are a favorite with most ducks:
- Brussels sprouts
- Boiled egg
- Cooked chicken
- Dandelion leaves
- Feeder fish
- Soldier fly grubs
- Sweet potatoes
Foods you should not feed your ducks
- Dry, uncooked beans contain hemagglutinin and are toxic.
- Raw green potato peels contain solanine and are toxic.
- Citrus is extremely acidic and can cause digestive problems.
- Chocolate, coffee, and anything containing caffeine. Caffeine is toxic to ducks, causing heart failure.
- Carbonated beverages and alcohol are deadly.
- Salty or salted foods, such as chips, crackers, salted meats, or salty meals, should be avoided. Ducks, being small animals, will become affected by salt toxicity quickly.
- Sugary foods should never be given to ducks. Candy, cookies, ice cream, donuts, pop tarts, most breakfast cereals, canned fruit with added sugar, and so on are all off limits for ducks.
- Highly processed foods such as deli meats, bagels, white bread, and cereals contain preservatives and other extremely unhealthy substances
- High fat foods should not be given to ducks. They need less fat in their diet than humans do. No French fries or other fried foods, bacon, etc.
- Any other junk foods or foods considered unhealthy for humans should never be given to ducks.
Also avoid anything moldy, rotten, rancid, or spoiled.
If you’ve given your ducks one of these foods and they didn’t die, that doesn’t mean it was good for them.
If they seemed to love it, that doesn’t mean they should have it. There are so many healthy treats that ducks love. There is no reason to damage their health by giving them unnecessary unhealthy snacks.
Foods you should be careful with or avoid
- Bread. White bread, in particular, is just empty calories with little nutritional value. Ducks will fill up on it easily without getting any necessary nutrients. White bread should be avoided entirely, while other healthier types of bread, such as sourdough bread and whole-grain bread, can be fed in small quantities, but don’t make a habit of giving your ducks bread.
- Dairy. While not a complete no-no, ducks are lactose intolerant and dairy is not a natural food for a birds.
- Onions and garlic contain sulfoxides, which is toxic in large quantities. It’s best avoided, but small amounts won’t kill your ducks. Many people nevertheless give their poultry garlic as a supplement.
- Avocado skins, pits, and leaves contain persin and are toxic to ducks. The flesh appears to be safe for ducks, at least in small amounts, but some people recommend avoiding it.
- Kale, spinach, and other foods high in oxalic acid can hinder your ducks’ calcium absorption, which can cause soft-shelled eggs and other problems. Even if your ducks’ eggshells remain hard, they may still be deficient in calcium and be taking calcium from their own bones. Kale and spinach can be fed in small quantities, but be very careful with it, especially when feeding it to laying ducks. Rhubarb is especially dangerous and should be avoided.
- Scratch, like bread, is just empty calories and has little to no nutritional value. Some people feed it in winter, since corn keeps birds warmer, but other than that, avoid scratch.
- Sugar-high fruits are all right for ducks as they’re a natural source of sugar, but feed them in moderation. They are definitely a “treat” food that should not comprise a large part of your ducks’ diet.
How to introduce ducks to new foods
Last year, I bought some adult Saxony ducks that had lived on bare dirt and concrete and I think they’d pretty much never eaten anything but chicken feed. They didn’t know what sorghum was. They didn’t know what cucumber was. They wondered if strawberries were aliens. Thought mangoes might eat them. Thought watermelon rinds were something to trip over. Couldn’t see any use for peas.
When you introduce your ducks to a new food, they might not know it’s good to eat. Some ducks are braver about trying new foods than others, depending on their personality and how they’ve been raised, so give it time if your ducks don’t take to whatever you give them immediately. You can also chop it in small pieces to make it easier to eat and put it in their bowl with their food.
Cucumbers are a hit with most of my ducks. The older ducks are experts at devouring a whole cucumber by violently tearing bite-sized chunks off, although they find this easier to do if I’m holding the cucumber. But when I introduce ducks to it for the first time, I’ll usually start by throwing small chunks or a sliver of peel at them, and they’ll eventually try it.
Ducks have different personalities and tastes. I’ve heard that some people’s ducks like pepper and carrot, but I’ve never had any luck feeding peppers or carrots to my ducks. Most ducks are obsessed with peas, but I’ve heard of a few people who said their ducks didn’t seem to like them.
When can ducklings have treats?
In the wild, a duckling’s first ever bite of food will be something natural, perhaps a blade of grass. Technically, there is no such thing as “too young to eat treats.”
The issue with giving treats to ducklings too young is that they are so small and eat so little that it’s very easy to fill them up without giving them the needed balance of nutrients. It’s best to wait until your ducklings have learned what “regular food” is and are eating it consistently before introducing additional foods, to be on the safe side. Most people say to wait a week or two.
Harvey Ussery notes in his book The Small-Scale Poultry Flock that he feeds live feeds to baby poultry from day one and has noticed that it reduces or even prevents “pasty butt,” a common problem in brooder-raised chicks. Although pasty butt isn’t common in ducklings, it still stands to reason that live feeds are a beneficial addition to your ducklings’ diet.
Feed treats to ducklings in very small amounts and provide a wide-ranging, balanced variety of foods. Only give healthy treats to ducklings — absolutely no unhealthy or even questionable treats such as white bread or pasta. Chop veggies and fruits into small pieces. Good treats for ducklings include chopped greens, peas (halved for small ducklings), banana, boiled eggs, mealworms, and soldier fly grubs. Anything that’s good for adult ducks will also be all right for ducklings if it’s provided in pieces small enough for them to eat.
Just remember: moderation and variety.
If you feed your ducklings anything other than commercial feed, be sure they have access to grit. Ducklings, like adult ducks, need grit in order to “chew” and digest their food.
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