When I planned my own wedding a decade ago, it was common knowledge that you couldn’t throw rice at weddings. After all, the birds would come down and eat it and it would expand in their little stomachs and then the birds would explode. So, we gave our guests little satchels of birdseed to throw as we walked back down the aisle after getting married.
But, in the intervening years, it’s occurred to me that the idea that birds will explode after eating uncooked rice is… weird. After all, the tradition of throwing rice (or oats, or other grains) at a newly married couple to symbolize showering them with prosperity, fertility, and good fortune has been around for a while. You’d think that people would have noticed if after a wedding there were lots of dead birds lying around in the vicinity. Birds suddenly dropping dead is the kind of thing people from earlier ages definitely noticed and attached symbolism to. So, is it true that birdies will explode if and when they eat uncooked rice?
According to Snopes, this idea has been around for a while, ever since advice columnist Ann Landers advised her readers in 1988 not to throw rice at weddings for the sake of the birds’ health. The USA Rice Federation was not too pleased by this (I love how specific lobbying/advocacy groups are and how seriously they take any and all threats to their products).
“This silly myth pops up periodically, and it is absolutely unfounded,” responded rice expert Mary Jo Cheesman at the USA Rice Federation. Many migrating ducks and geese depend on winter-flooded rice fields each year to fatten up and build strength for their return trek to northern nesting grounds.
Uncooked, milled rice is no more harmful to birds than rice in the field, Cheesman said.
If you’re not inclined to believe what this shill for Big Rice has to say, there is an actual scientific exploration of the issue. From Snopes:
[I]n 2002 University of Kentucky biology professor James Krupa put the matter to test with his students, conducting experiments that he eventually published in the April 2005 edition of the journal American Biology Teacher under the title “A CLASSROOM EXERCISE FOR TESTING URBAN MYTH: Does Wedding Rice Cause Birds to Explode or Were Ann Landers, Martha Stewart & Bart Simpson Wrong?”
One factor Krupa and his students measured just how much rice actually expands when soaked in water. They found that soaked white rice expanded in volume by 33%, which might sound like a lot, but not so much when compared to ordinary bird seed, which they found increased in size by an even greater percentage (40%). If a 33% increase in volume of ingested rice could cause birds to explode, then bird seed should be turning even more of them into avian bombs.
Krupa’s group found that instant rice, both the brown and white varieties, expanded considerably more (2.4 to 2.7 times its original volume) than plain white rice when soaked. Instant rice isn’t typically the sort that people throw at weddings (because it’s costlier and more difficult to buy in bulk), but nonetheless the experimenters tested the possibilities by constructing models of bird crops from thin plastic and wet paper and filling them with instant rice. Although a paper bag filled with soaked instant white rice ruptured in about 15 minutes, none of the avian crop models burst.
Krupa’s students prevailed upon him to also test the exploding rice theory on real birds, an entreaty he finally acquiesced to because he felt their previous experiments had sufficiently demonstrated that no birds would come to harm through the process. He agreed to try some rice-feeding tests with flocks of doves and pigeons he kept at home, feeding 60 of his birds a diet of nothing other than instant rice and water for one day and monitoring them for any ill effects. He found that none of the birds showed any obvious signs of pain, discomfort, or distress; none of them exhibited ruptures or other injuries (including explosion), and none of them took ill or died.
So, no, you don’t have to forego the rice for the sake of the birds.
However (Of course there’s a however), that doesn’t mean throwing rice at weddings is a good idea. Many churches have rules prohibiting the throwing of rice at weddings, as it can create slip-and-fall hazards for guests on hard surfaces like stone steps, and cleaning the stuff out of grass is a bitch.
So, there you go. You learned something new.