Stimulating Feeding of Downies (Waterfowl) (Bird Husbandry & Management - Rearing)

Summary Information
Type of technique Health & Management / Bird Husbandry and Management / Rearing / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. 1) This information should be read in association with:

N.B. 2) This information should be used in conjunction with the information on downies in the sections on Feeding Behaviour, Natural Diet and Aviculture of the individual species. Where adequate information on the foods and feeding of downies is not available for a species, data on similar species may be useful.

Description Waterfowl downies may be reluctant to take food initially. This is probably related to the fact that foods provided for downies in captivity, particularly those being hand reared, are very different in form and presentation from their natural diets.

Different species are recognized as being easy (e.g. Anas platyrhynchos - Mallard) or difficult (e.g. Clangula hyemalis - Long-tailed duck) to start feeding. Natural behaviour, specialization and the adaptability of different species may be factors affecting this.

Additionally, a solitary downy is often more difficult to start feeding than a clutch of several birds. A variety of techniques have been developed to encourage downies to start eating, with some being generally applicable, while others are especially relevant to particular species.

General presentation:

  • In encouraging feeding, it is important to ensure food is fed in association with water - floating on water, mixed with water or with water easily accessible close to the food. Downies may be reluctant to feed, or find feeding difficult, if food and water are placed far apart.
  • Most downies will peck at food items and can be provided with crumb-type food or small pellets, placed near water. Some species such as pygmy geese Nettapus spp. and stifftails sieve or strain their food, filtering out small particles rather than pecking, and a thin slurry of fine, husk-free starter crumbs mixed with water should be provided for these birds. Floating foods including small seeds (such as millet, canary seed, rape) and duckweed Lemna are preferred by species which sieve from the surface and do not dive much, e.g. Black-headed duck (Heteronetta atricapilla - Black-headed duck), Whistling ducks Dendrocygna spp.).

Stimulation of feeding behaviour:

In stimulating feeding behaviour it is useful to make use of innate preferences of waterfowl. In general, waterfowl downies are stimulated to peck by yellow and green items, worm-shaped objects and moving objects. Objects combining two or more of these "attractive" components may be especially useful in stimulating feeding initially. It is important to remember that no one technique is guaranteed to be successful for all species or in all circumstances. Even within the same species, different techniques may be successful with different individuals or different clutches of birds. The following suggestions have been found useful.

  • Sprinkling a few crumbs onto the back of the downies may be useful as the birds will encounter these while preening and find they are edible.
  • A fingertip or the handle end of a paintbrush or similar may be dipped in water then in crumbs and this held and moved in front of the downies, encouraging them to peck at the moving object. The finger or brush may then be moved to the main feed bowl so that in pecking at it, the main food source is discovered.
  • A few crumbs may be placed on the water so that they float and are encountered by the downies while they are drinking. These will also tend to move on the water surface, further encouraging feeding.
  • An actively-feeding juvenile, such as a mallard duckling (Anas platyrhynchos - Mallard), may be placed with the newly-hatched downies as a "tutor" companion, particularly for downies of species known to be at risk, such as scoters Melanitta spp., harlequins (Histrionicus histrionicus - Harlequin duck) and long-tailed ducks (Clangula hyemalis - Long-tailed duck).
  • Hard boiled egg, either chopped or forced through a coarse sieve (therefore in "worm" shapes) may be placed on to starter crumbs/pellets to encourage pecking.
  • Duckweed (Lemna minor) is taken readily by most species, particularly stifftails. Other green foods, finely chopped, may also be used, such as lettuce, which is very palatable. These foods may be placed on water and on top of starter crumbs/pellets.
  • Mealworms or crickets placed on the starter crumbs/pellets provide movement as a stimulus and are very useful particularly for species which would mostly consume live food, e.g. Smew Mergellus albellus - Smew, scoters Melanitta spp., mergansers, Bufflehead Bucephala albeola - Bufflehead).
  • A can containing water and with a small hole in the bottom may be suspended over a bowl of water on which some crumbs and green food are floating. The dripping water provides movement as a stimulus. 
  • Natural live food such as Daphnia (water fleas) and water shrimp are extremely attractive and palatable.
  • Fingers may be vibrated rapidly in a fine slurry of food, encouraging feeding by downies such as pygmy geese which filter fine particles from the water (N1.90.w1).

N.B. For tree-hole breeding species (e.g. Aix galericulata - Mandarin duck, Aix sponsa - Wood duck), tossing the downies lightly into the air and allowing them to fall to the ground to simulate falling from the nest may settle the birds and thereby promote feeding behaviour.

Appropriate Use (?)
  • Downies which do not learn to feed effectively will die from when their nutrient stores are exhausted (see: Starveout).
  • Preferred items used to stimulate feeding should be fed on or mixed with the nutritionally-balanced starter food, so that the feeding behaviour may become transferred to eating the balanced diet.
  • It is important to be certain that the downies are actually eating, by close observation and by weighing.
  • Initial weight loss is normal as the yolk sac is used up, but the weight should begin to increase again after two to three days.
  • Weighing before and after intensive feed stimulation sessions may be used to confirm food intake.
  • Restless ducklings, which spend all their time trying to jump up the side of the brooder box will usually not eat.
Complications / Limitations / Risk
  • Different stimulation methods may be more useful for different species.
  • Tube feeding may be required with very reluctant feeders until they start eating (see: Gavage / Tubing of Birds).
  • Lettuce is very low in nutrients and if this is consumed to the exclusion of other foods, Caloric Exhaustion may result.
  • In feeding live food such as mealworms and crickets to stimulate feeding there is a risk that the downies may become "addicted" to these items, which do not provide a balanced diet, and not transfer to nutritionally-balanced starter crumbs/pellets.
  • Maggots are not recommended as live food, due to the risk of Botulism.
  • Regular anthelmintic treatment from an early age is important if natural foods such as Daphnia (water fleas) and water shrimp (Gammarids) are used, as these are intermediate hosts for parasites such as Acuaria (see: Echinuriasis (Acuariasis)) and Acanthocephala spp. (thorny-headed worms) (see: Acanthocephala Infection) respectively. Duckweed or live food brought from any area in which wild duck feed may also bring tapeworm eggs or larvae. Freshwater fish may contain larvae of spiny-headed worms, roundworms and tapeworms (see: Preventative Medicine for Birds - Parasite Screening and Routine Control Measures).
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers Appropriate foods, including starter crumbs, hard-boiled egg, duckweed (Lemna minor), other greenfood, mealworms, Daphnia, gammarids, as appropriate.

All equipment required should be available in a most households.

Expertise level / Ease of Use No particular expertise is required, although experience helps, as does patience and perseverance. Beginners should consult experienced aviculturists.
Cost / Availability
  • Local pet shops should be able to supply live-food or assist in finding a source.
  • Mail-order forms specialising in the supply of livefood may be found e.g. through advertisements in appropriate magazines.
  • Items such as Daphnia may be available from a local pond.
  • The amounts of livefood required to initiate feeding should not be too expensive.
Legal and Ethical Considerations Permission should be sought from the owner before taking live food from e.g. a pond.
Author Debra Bourne
Referee --
References J23.13.w3, J23.13.w4, J23.16.w2, B10.26.w2, B13.46.w1, B37.x.w1, B40, B95, B106, N1.90.w1, V.w5).

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