Harteman Wildfowl, presented by Jan Harteman
One of the most common questions I've received is: "I've got a new duck, what do I feed it?". This page should help answer that question. After talking to several waterfowl breeders, from various books and from my own notes, I hope to explain the basic feeding requirements of captive geese, ducks and swans.
All waterfowl species are omnivores, meaning they feed on both plant and animal matter. Many species have specialized feeding habits, either diving, dabbling (see photo at right) or grazing and these habits are also seen in captive birds.
Breeders often use two types of feed, grain and commerical blends (pellets or mash). The commerical blends and rations have been scientifically formulated to include all the essential nutrients needed. They come in a variety of brands, from local mills to international lines. Check with your local mill or feed store for the brands they supply. Once offered a brand, you will need to check the protein level of the ration as it varies at the different stages of life. For breeding birds, it is recommended to have the protein level of at least 17%, for starting and growing birds 20% and for non-breeding or regular maintenance about 14%.
The complete rations just mentioned provide all the necessary elements of diet and include grain as an ingredient, but many also offer their waterfowl with grain. We prefer to use a mixture of both the ration and grain year-round. The grain mixture we use from February to September contains cracked corn (sometimes called Chops), milo and wheat. During the winter months, the only grain fed is corn as it is high in carbohydrates and helps the birds put on extra body fat for warmth during the winter. Other varieties of grains that are fed to waterfowl include oats, millet, barley and rye.
Important food items that are often overlooked are greens and vegetables. It is a necessity for swans and geese to feed on greens such as leaf or romaine lettuce, and if space allows, they love to graze on the grass. We feed carrots, potatoes and squash that is grated at least once a week. You can usually check with the produce department at your local grocery store, they will often let you have the produce that is "not suitable for human use". These veggies are usually fine, just a few dents or tears, but be sure to wash them and check them over before offering them to your birds.
Many breeders also offer live food such as mealworms or feeder fish to breeding and growing birds. Both of these are readily available at any pet store. Breeders of Mergansers and other diving ducks often supplement their diets with small kibble dog food, which is high in protein and great for growing ducks. Other supplements (treats) we offer are extra millet sprays and various seeds left over from the cage birds. There are also other "natural treats" waterfowl enjoy, including acorns, dandelions and duckweed.
Drinking water is very important in the digestive process. Waterers seperate from the swimming water is changed daily. These can be used to administer medications and vitamin supplements. Grit should always be provided.
Your feeding schedule depends on your time, but I prefer to allow waterfowl access to food at all times. This can be done in the various poultry feeders available from poultry suppliers. These feeders are as vermin-proof as possible and protected from the weather. Food is checked and replaced daily. Greens are placed throughtout the aviary, with the birds choosing which food they prefer. Food should never lie around on the ground, this will spoil and mold which will cause illness. Breeders occasionally toss feed on the ground, which is fine, just do an amount the birds will eat quickly. You will undoubtedly have problems with rodents and wild birds such as starlings and house sparrows when food is left out.
It is important to keep unused feed stored in a dry room to keep fresh and from molding. Do not allow feed to remain in sacks on the floor or spilled feed to lay around, you will surely invite rodents this way! In some areas, grain beetles and moths can become a problem. You can eliminate these by freezing your food. With large quanities, this maybe impossible, so use a sealed bin or container.
As you've seen, feeding waterfowl is quite easy. It is really personal preference on your methods and food choice. This page is intended as basic reference for beginners to the hobby. I encourage beginners to contact different waterfowl keepers and learn how they feed, what they feed and other methods. You will likely get a number of responses, try each one to find one that suits your needs.
If you have additional information or you see something important that has been left out, feel free to contact me.