A popular tale, usually told before weddings, is that rice can cause birds to explode if they consume it. Is there any science to back up this claim or is it just an urban legend?
Does Rice Really Make Birds Explode?
People are warned not to throw rice at weddings because some claim that the rice will expand in a bird’s stomach and/or produce gas which can rupture a birds stomach, killing the bird. Fortunately, this is an urban legend – a myth. In fact, wild rice is a dietary staple for many birds, as are other grains such as wheat and barley.
Where Did The Myth Begin?
It’s unknown where this myth originates, but it appeared on the radar in 1985 when a state representative in Connecticut attempted to pass a law to prevent the tossing of rice at weddings. 3 years later, it was in the national spotlight again when advice columnist Ann Landers printed a letter from a woman worried about “sounding like a nut” for asking her guests not to toss rice at her at her wedding.
Both the anonymous advice seeker in the Landers column and the state representative had similar concerns – that rice would kill wild birds and pigeons.
Landers told the reader to ask her wedding party and guests not to throw rice because it could harm wild birds. However, there was just one problem with her advice – there is absolutely no evidence that rice poses any risk to wild birds. After being contacted by educational institutions and parties concerned about giving misinformation to the public, Landers printed a retraction three months later.
Testing The Myth
Since no one bothered to publicly test the myth, it never completely died. In 2002, University of Kentucky biologist Jim Krupa asked 600 of his students if it was safe to throw rice at weddings. 45% percent of the students said no, and when asked why, they said “it would kill the birds.”
Krupa saw this an opportunity. He decided to have his students test the urban legend as a lesson on the scientific method. His students performed experiments on the expansion and gas release of different types of rice, the strength of bird digestive organs and the food preferences of several wild bird species. The study, published in 2005 in the journal The American Biology Teacher, found that the only grain that might pose a risk was instant rice.
Interested in a real world experiment, the students asked Dr. Krupa to feed his own birds instant rice to see what would happen. Krupa, confident that the risk was minimal and the birds would be fine, agreed. He fed his 60 pigeons and doves a diet of nothing but instant rice and water for 12 hours, all the while keeping an eye on their health to make sure there was no suffering.
After 12 hours, the birds were completely fine. No deaths or regurgitation was recorded. The birds actually seemed to like the rice and Krupa was quoted as saying “They loved it and now they’re kind of addicted to it.”
Rice does pose a unique danger. Not to birds, but to people. Haphazardly scattered on a hard surface (such as the steps of a church or a dance floor) it can put anyone who walks across that surface at risk of taking a nasty spill. It is also not fun to clean up which is likely the real reason rice is banned at many churches and weddings.
Bonus Fact: Alka-Seltzer does not cause birds to explode and is also a myth.
Photos are available under a Creative Commons Attribution license by Wikicommons.
NY Times – Q&A Birds and Rice
The Big Book of Urban Legends (1994) New York: Paradox Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56389-165-4 (p. 109).
Rice-Bird Story Is a Myth – Danbury News-Times, 10 October 2008