What Do Water Birds Eat?

A water bird’s diet consists of fish, aquatic vegetation, insects, invertebrates, frogs, seeds, and nuts. Some feed in the water by diving for their food, while others forage on land. Diets vary based on the species of water bird.

Water birds are birds that inhabit or rely upon marine environments for survival. You can find them living in or near wetland habitats such as ponds, marshes, rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans.

Their diet tends to vary based on the species of water bird. Some are more terrestrial, such as shorebirds, and will forage for food on land. Others are more aquatic, such as waterfowl, and will feed by diving for their food and hunting aquatic prey.

The difference between a water bird being more terrestrial or aquatic largely depends on the species’ adaptations. Most aquatic water birds have webbed feet, long beaks, and the ability to dive from the water’s surface or air to catch prey.

Types of Water Birds

A water bird’s diet varies based on the type of water bird, its living environment, and its adaptations. There are many species of water birds found throughout the world. Here is a breakdown of the most prevalent types of water birds, their diets, and what areas of the world they inhabit.


Seabirds make their living from the ocean. Because of this dependence, most of them live along coastlines, and many seabirds undertake lengthy migrations.

Although seabirds vary considerably in size, lifestyle, eating habits, and behavior, every species feeds in saltwater.

Common seabirds include penguins, gulls, terns, puffins, albatrosses, boobies, and frigate birds.

Seabirds feed at the ocean’s surface, below the ocean’s surface, and occasionally feed on each other. Surface feeding occurs either while flying or swimming. The prey for surface feeding is anything seabirds can catch with a dipped head, such as krill, baitfish, plankton, and squid. Seabirds that dive or plunge below the surface catch fast-moving, larger fish.


There are over 180 species of waterfowl, with the most common being ducks, swans, and geese. They live in and around bodies of water worldwide, primarily in ponds and lakes. Some waterfowl, such as geese, live mainly on grasslands.

Waterfowls are highly adapted to an aquatic lifestyle and are strong swimmers with waterproof feathers, long necks, and webbed feet.

Most species of waterfowl are vegetarians and graze on grass, plants, and water weeds. Some species are hunters and prey on fish, snails, insects, and invertebrates.

Waterfowl obtain their food by either dabbling or diving. Dabblers forage on land and at the water’s surface by submerging their heads underwater. Divers will immerse themselves underneath the water’s surface to feed, often at great depths.


Shorebirds, often referred to as waders, live in wet, coastal environments and are mostly found wading along coastlines, beaches, mudflats, and marshes.

Common shorebirds include avocets, oystercatchers, plovers, sandpipers, and snipe. Shorebirds are foragers and will crawl and burrow in mud, sand, gravel, rocks, and water for their prey.

Shorebirds are carnivorous, with a diet consisting of insects, mollusks, crustaceans, worms, and tadpoles.


Loons inhabit freshwater lakes in the United States and Canada. They are large diving water birds and have a distinguishing dagger-shaped bill, which they use to catch prey. Loons have trouble walking on land and only go ashore to mate and incubate eggs.

Loons find their prey by sight. They are quick, stealthy divers that fully submerge themselves beneath the water to catch their prey.

Because of their strong diving abilities, loons mainly eat fish but are also known to eat amphibians and crustaceans–particularly crayfish, frogs, snails, salamanders, and leeches.


Depicted mainly as a symbol of new arrivals and beginnings, Storks are large wading birds with long legs, long necks, and long bills. They are white with black feathers along their wings.

Storks tend to live in drier habitats, preferring to live near shallow pools of water such as flooded grasslands, marshes, and ponds. They are solitary creatures, and you will often find them living alone when it is not their breeding season.

Storks maintain a carnivorous diet. They get their food by wading in the water and using their long beaks to catch food. Their diet is mainly composed of reptiles, frogs, toads, fish, small mammals such as rodents, mollusks, crustaceans, insects, and tadpoles.


Pelecaniformes are a diverse group of medium and large-size water birds that share the common genetic trait of webbing between all four of their toes. They can range from 16 inches to 6 feet in height, and all Pelecaniformes, except for tropicbirds, have a bare throat patch or throat sac.

Pelicans, herons, egrets, ibises, and spoonbills are all examples of Pelecaniformes.

These birds inhabit areas throughout the world, primarily in coastal and marine zones as well as inland freshwater environments. They depend on fish and other water animals for food, so oceans, seacoasts, rivers, and lakes are their preferred habitats.

While many Pelecaniformes only eat fish, a few will also eat squid, shrimp, crustaceans, jellyfish, young turtles, tadpoles, and the eggs of other water birds.


Flamingos are wading birds famous for their vibrant pink feathers, slender legs, s-shaped necks, and tendency to stand on one leg. They are tall and range in height from 3 to 5 feet. Flamingos are social creatures, and you’ll usually find them in large flocks, which sometimes number in the thousands.

There are four species of flamingos spread throughout the Americas and Caribbean, along with parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Flamingos are considered omnivores with a diet consisting of brine shrimp, algae, small insects, snails, mollusks, and crustaceans.

When it’s time to eat, a flamingo will submerge its head underwater, twist it upside down, and scoop the food using its upper beak like a shovel.

Flamingos get their pink color from the foods they eat. Carotenoids, which give carrots their orange color and turn tomatoes red, are also found in the microscopic algae that brine shrimp eat, which are then eaten by flamingos. As flamingos dine on algae and brine shrimp, their bodies metabolize the carotenoids, which results in their feathers turning pink.

Water Birds Are a Diverse Species

There are many diverse species of water birds living around the world. Because they rely upon marine environments for survival, you can find these birds inhabiting or living near bodies of water.

Although each species is unique, most water birds eat a diet of fish, insects, mollusks, crustaceans, and aquatic vegetation.

The next time you are near a body of water, keep an eye out for these magnificent birds.

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