I am fortunate to have a pretty duck pond within walking distance of my home. It is a favourite haunt of my granddaughter’s and mine, usually armed with half a loaf of leftover bread.
We rarely see other people there; sometimes some dog walkers, and occasionally other families feeding the birds.
Recently, we entered the fields from a different direction and noticed a sign asking people not to feed the wildfowl bread as it causes them harm.
Admittedly, the sign looked worse for wear and had possibly been standing for a while, but it made us think.
Is feeding bread to the birds harming them, and, if so, what can you feed ducks and swans?
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What Can You Feed Ducks and Swans?
Don’t be afraid to feed bread to the birds, especially during cold winters. When their natural food sources are scarce or frozen, bread might be the only food available.
Ducks happily eat seeds and grains, sweetcorn, porridge oats, and lettuce.
Swans eat the same things and are also partial to grated carrot, vegetable peelings, chopped celery, and unsweetened breakfast cereal.
Do Ducks and Swans Eat the Same Things?
Imagine the scene, standing around the pond, trying to keep children safe, giving one food for swans and another for ducks.
Launching the goodies into the water and watching the ensuing chaos as each eats the food meant for the other!
Thankfully, both bird species and most other waterfowl breeds are happy to feast on the same treats.
What do Ducks and Swans Eat in the Wild?
It is useful to know what the birds’ natural diet is because then we can offer similar and equally nutritious supplementary food.
We all know ducks enjoy bread almost as much as the pleasure we derive from feeding it to them.
But bread is the duck version of junk food; it has little nutritional value, is addictive, and creates a false sense of fullness.
Ducks feast on a multitude of things in the wild.
They are omnivorous and enjoy living and plant life.
They dunk their heads below the surface to feast on weeds, plants, and seeds.
They enjoy insects, small fish, worms, water snails, frogs, and toads.
During early spring frog spawn and tadpoles on offer are very nutritious for adults and ducklings.
The average swan weighs around 25lbs. To maintain their health and weight, they need to eat between 25% and 35% of their body weight each day!
They prefer mainly greens and spend most of their time feeding on plants, weeds, and algae.
Life is easier if they can scoop their food from the water’s surface, but they’re not averse to diving down to retrieve weeds and roots from the bed of the pond.
Diving expends more energy, the very thing they are trying to conserve. It is why they prefer to eat things floating on the surface.
Similarly, swans enjoy nibbling on short grass, but the act of leaving the water wastes more of their valuable energy.
Not everything is filtered from the water with each mouthful. Swans inevitably swallow tiny insects, molluscs, fish, eggs, and tadpoles; hence they are mostly herbivorous.
Is it Safe to Feed Bread to Ducks and Swans?
Swans are typically herbivores; in the wild, they feed mainly on greens, typically weeds and algae.
My local duck pond is home to several elegant white birds. They might not be as agile as the ducks, but their sheer size and power enable them to grab more than their fair share of the bread we throw.
It is believed that bread isn’t the best or most nutritious swan food as their digestive tract isn’t designed for refined flour and sugar.
But, compared with a swan that faces malnutrition through a harrowing winter, bread can be the difference between survival and death.
Feeding Ducks and Swans Safely
No matter what you choose to feed the wildfowl at the pond, you should do so carefully.
- Only feed fresh bread; mouldy bread is toxic to birds.
- Wholegrain bread is best.
- Bread leftover will get soggy and build up harmful nutrients.
- Bread on the bank causes a hazard to humans as it creates a slippery surface.
All Other Foods – over-feeding
Never feed ducks and swans more than they eat while you’re there.
Mouldy food causes disease of the respiratory tract that can end in death. They also contract it through drinking dirty, polluted water.
Uneaten food attracts predators. Foxes and rats prowl close to open water, hoping to find leftover scraps. Better still, a lowly duck family resting on the bank for Mr Fox to feast on.
If we keep the edges of our waterways clean, foxes and other vermin should keep away and scavenge elsewhere.
If we feed ducks and swans too much, small ponds attract even more wild birds. Overcrowding becomes detrimental to the abundance and quality of the natural food available and changes the ecology.
What Should We Feed the Ducks and Swans
Wholegrain bread is safe to feed the birds in small quantities and only if nothing else is available.
Here are some of the better options;
Fresh from the pod or defrosted frozen peas cause a feeding frenzy at our local pond.
It’s fun to watch the ducks race for them while they are still afloat.
The same rules apply as peas although, tinned sweetcorn also works.
The vibrant yellow colouring makes it easier for small children to spot in the water while waiting for a swan to gobble it up.
Small amounts of shredded salad leaves are not only nutritious for ducks and swans, but they best replicate their favourite weed and plant life.
Rocket, spinach, kale, and iceberg lettuce are all fine.
We always cook more rice in our house than is necessary. The birds have no preference for basmati, short, or long-grain; just avoid microwave rice due to its high salt levels.
Birds eat lots of finely chopped fruit but be aware. Apple and pear are fine, providing there are no seeds. Grapes and melon are good for them too, and they love pieces of any berry; strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, or blueberry.
The birds love finely sliced leafy greens; our ducks make a beeline for a shredded carrot!
Any leftover birdseed from your garden is perfect for taking to the pond. It doesn’t matter which type; the wildfowl will soon snap it up.
Specific Duck and Swan Food
These cost a little more but are nutritionally balanced for the birds’ needs. They float on the surface for longer, allowing the swans, in particular, to conserve energy.
Things to Avoid Feeding Swans and Ducks
Many items we feel are safe to feed the birds are detrimental to their health.
Members of the nightshade family
Potatoes (not the sweet variety) pimentoes, tomatoes, aubergines, and all types of peppers, hot and sweet varieties.
They cause diarrhoea and can result in heart failure.
Apple and Pear Seeds
They contain traces amounts of cyanide.
The leaves are poisonous to wildlife. The stalks contain oxalic acid, which affects calcium production and harms egg formation.
Members of the allium family, including leeks, chives, spring onions, and cooking onions, cause anaemia in birds.
The worst cases result in birds’ death.
You might think you’re helping the ducks and swans by sharing your crisps, chips, or chocolate with them.
They cannot digest high levels of salt and sugar; you’re doing them more harm than good.
Bread isn’t the worst thing to feed the birds, but it certainly isn’t the best.
If it can help them survive harsh winters by supplementing their diet, then all is good.
Imagine if we all stopped feeding them as happened a few years ago; lots of birds died from malnourishment.
If it’s possible, you can feed ducks and swans with more healthy and nutritious fruit, vegetables, and seeds – just stay safe at the water’s edge.