Duck Feeding: The Rules


My kids like to feed the ducks, but does this do more harm than good?

—Martin Meisenheimer, Los Angeles, CA

While your neighborhood mallards aren’t going to be swinging by the drive-through anytime soon, ducks, like people, love their junk food. They will happily gobble up white bread, refined sugar, and processed fats, but those foods are not as healthy for them as the leafy greens, acorns, insects, and crustaceans they would be eating naturally.

Still, feeding ducks can be a fun family activity that might help spark a child’s interest in wildlife. If it’s an experience you don’t want to skip, try offering the birds a healthier snack, such as poultry starter with a crude protein content of 27 percent or more, which is available at farm stores.

Scientists who work with wildlife express additional concerns about feeding a flock because it causes ducks to gather in larger-than-normal groups. The stress of being in a crowd can make individual ducks more aggressive, and can even alter the group’s migration timing (or encourage the ducks not to migrate at all). Large bird congregations can also foster the spread of disease. “Infectious disease is opportunistic, and these emerging diseases are continually challenging wildlife,” says Milt Friend, founding director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center.

If you skip feeding the ducks, don’t forget that kids can also learn from and enjoy water birds by watching their behaviors or taking pictures. Just leave the “Happy Meals” at home.

Originally printed as Starre’s “Green Guru” column for Audubon Magazine.

Starre Vartan is founder and editor-in-chief of Eco-Chick.com and the author of the Eco-Chick Guide to Life. She's also a freelance science and environment writer who has published in National Geographic, CNN, Scientific American, Mental Floss, Pacific Standard, the NRDC, and many more. She lives on an island in Puget Sound with her partner and black cat. She was a geologist in her first career, and still picks up rocks wherever she goes.