A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Should you not throw rice at weddings because birds swallow it and explode?

May 2, 1997

Dear Cecil:

On a recent NBC Today Show segment, some Martha Stewart wannabe said you shouldn't throw rice at weddings because it kills birds. Supposedly birds eat the rice, it swells in their stomachs, and they explode over playgrounds. Having cooked a lot of rice, I know it takes boiling heat and a good 20 minutes to get it to swell (aside from so-called Minute rice). It seems to me if any bird has an intestinal temperature near boiling, eating a few grains of rice is the least of its worries. Also, despite zillions of weddings, I don't recall seeing piles of blown-up pigeons near churches, nor do I remember seeing inordinate numbers of bird carcasses near rice paddies in southeast Asia. Is there any basis in fact to the rice = bird killer story, or is this yet another urban myth?

Cecil replies:

Cecil humbly concedes that the final word cannot yet be written on this urgent subject. Instead, as is his custom, he merely recites the facts as ascertained to date:

(1) Personally I think the whole thing is BS, but if I just said that I'd be 500 words shy of a column.

(2) Having momentarily tired of the Internet, I had little Ed go on the Mara Tapp show on WBEZ radio in Chicago to see if any of the Teeming Millions had seen birds exploding over playgrounds. Number of calls from kibitzers who wanted to hear what their voices sounded like on the radio: zillions. Number of sightings of detonated birds: zero. Tolja.

(3) One guy's idea of a major scientific contribution was to tell us he'd been in a cooking class in Minnesota ten years before, and they'd experimentally determined that dried rice doubles in volume when soaked. Like I didn't know this, you goof.

(4) Though maybe the guy's point was that you didn't need to have boiling or even hot water to do this. Little Ed isn't sure. You look at his notes, you think, wow, nice shorthand. Unfortunately he was writing in longhand.

(5) My brother-in-law told me that dried barley expands to three and a half times its original volume when soaked, so if you're looking for things to throw at weddings instead of rice I guess barley shouldn't be high on the list. Then again, my brother-in-law also told me he read in a World War II memoir about how they would parachute in bags of rice to the troops in Burma or someplace, and occasionally when a bag went astray people on the ground would later find an empty bag and an exploded cow nearby. But when I spent three hours in the library reading the memoir in question I found zip to support this tale, and it wouldn't surprise me if my brother-in-law hallucinated the bit about barley too.

(6) Getting back to WBEZ, another guy claimed he had a friend who was a physical anthropologist, and she told him that when she wants to separate the bones in a skull, she fills it with rice and lets it sit in water overnight, whereupon the rice expands and forces the bones apart. The guy said in his opinion this didn't qualify as exploding. Maybe not, but it's not like having some bird swell up until its skull cracks open is a big improvement visualizationwise.

(7) Some people think that, from the point of view of bird endangerment, a distinction should be drawn between regular rice and Minute rice. These people are losers.

(8) When we queried the experts at Cornell University — you remember what a big help they were in exposing the grim truth about green potato chips — the director of education and information services wrote back as follows: "I do not have a prepared response [and why not?], but the simplest answer is, 'ricebirds' (bobolinks) have been eating rice throughout recorded history! It's really no different than the birds eating any grain, including millet or wheat, which they do all the time." Testify, sister.

(9) My assistant Jane — I tell you, nobody's going to say I didn't throw enough resources into this — says that, judging from her review of pertinent Web sites, the cool thing to do instead of throwing rice is to release clouds of butterflies. I'm not quite picturing this, but I guess you go to the bridal supply house and buy a box full of butterflies and hope most of them survive till the wedding. This is an improvement?

(10) A Presbyterian minister called WBEZ to say that the reason they didn't want you to throw rice at weddings was that it was like spreading little roller bearings all over the floor, and insurance companies didn't want the bride and groom to fall and break their necks. Though now that I think about it, using birdseed instead of rice is basically replacing roller bearings with ball bearings. Maybe we should rethink butterflies.

(11) I've said this before, I'll say it again. Ain't science great?

Things we didn't need to know

Dear Cecil:

Concerning your column about whether you shouldn't throw rice at weddings because birds eat it, it swells up in their guts, and they explode — well, maybe not rice. However, one day in D.C. I tried to figure out what I was seeing on the sidewalk, even though it was gruesome. It was [WARNING! Disgusting part follows!] a dead pigeon, its throat split vertically, and oozing out of it like stuffing out of a turkey, solidly packed split and whole kernels of dried corn. It really did look like that is what killed the bird. Maybe it had an obstruction of some sort.

I like your column a lot.

Cecil replies:

Thanks, Eloise. Just the same, I'm glad we never went out on a date.

I also have a note from Tim Erskine, who reports that he saw a bird "torn asunder" by the rice in its stomach. Tim says he saw this 25 years ago. This is not what I would call high-quality scientific evidence. Then again, it's not like I want anybody sending me something fresh.

Other baby steps on the road to knowledge:

(1) Numerous parties feel I should take up a related myth about feeding Alka-Seltzer to seagulls. "The birds have no means to pass gas orally or ventrally," Wayne writes, "so they just go in a burst of feathers!" Uh-huh. Wayne is hereby named High Commissioner of Experimental Alka-Seltzer Seagull Feeding. I expect a full report.

(2) An anonymous benefactor sent me a long excerpt from the Web site run by the USA Rice Federation. One learns that rice farmers set aside 500,000 acres of rice fields for overwintering waterfowl habitat, with 300 pounds of "residual grains" left per acre! Think of it: thousands of circling birds, detonating like flak bursts in Twelve o'Clock High! But the rice federation says bull. They quote another expert from Cornell, who says birds have powerful muscles and grit in their stomachs to grind up the rice before it reaches critical mass.

(3) The federation also says Ann Landers told the exploding bird story in a 1988 column, retracted it, then spread the same line of baloney in a 1996 column. You see why eradicating ignorance is so godawful slow.

Further reports

Mail about the effect of rice on our feathered friends continues to flood this department. The latest bulletins:

(1) Tim Neil of Crowley, Louisiana, "Rice Capital of the World," reports that thousands of birds swarm to eat the rice falling out of trucks near his hometown. Number of sightings of exploding birds: none. No, I take that back. He did see one explode. However, this was because a wad of birdshot hit it.

(2) The fact that birds eat rice in fields proves nothing, Paul Erickson claims. Rice in fields is not dehydrated, and doesn't expand when eaten. Rice in the box is dehydrated, and does. Nonetheless, Paul continues, birds who eat dehydrated rice don't explode. They just die.

(3) But Tim Neil says the rice dropped by the trucks was both "processed and unprocessed." I'm assuming that "processed" includes "dehydrated." So take that, Paul.

(4) A young person who obviously has way more time on his hands than I do reports that, in the interest of science, he captured four sparrows and fed them a daily diet of, respectively, Minute Rice, Uncle Ben's, normal rice, and bird feed. Mortality after seven days: zero, although the rice-fed birds did look "kinda droopy." However, they did fly away energetically when released. Conclusion: dried rice does not cause birds to explode or otherwise die. Good lad.

(5) At U.S. Air Force survival school in Spokane, Washington, students are told to drop Alka-Seltzer into wading pools in order to secure an easy lunch of seagull, says Brian Bourke. Many pilots carry Alka-Seltzer with them on sorties for this reason.

(6) Ex-serviceman Allen Greiner reports that while stationed on the Gulf Coast, he and his friends used to entertain themselves by tossing Alka-Seltzer to circling seagulls, who would catch the tablets in mid-air. If the gull succeeded in swallowing the Alka-Seltzer, it would falter after a short time, foam at the beak, then projectile vomit its stomach contents. Afterward the bird would be as healthy as ever. Bet this comes as a surprise to downed pilots tossing Alka-Seltzer in wading pools.

(7) Garrett Datz says he was at a wedding where they wanted to release live butterflies instead of having the guests throw rice. The idea was to release them from the top of the tent the wedding was held under. Unfortunately, they had the butterflies in boxes for hours and then in release cages for another few hours. By the time the critters were let go, they had all died and plopped onto the assembled party, which to me sounds like something out of Carrie.

(8) Steve Waldron reports having attended a wedding in which the bride and groom decided it would be neat to release two white doves at the end of the ceremony. However, the birds purchased at a pet store for this purpose had clipped wings and no survival skills. They made it as far as a tree, where they were attacked by squirrels as the children watched. I will spare you further details. The organist said he was not going to play for any more weddings where the ceremony called for an animal sacrifice after the recessional.

(9) Arnold Wright Blan says when his cousin got married, instead of throwing rice or birdseed, the couple had little jingle bells attached to business cards that the wedding guests were supposed to jingle as the newlyweds left for the honeymoon. Arnold considers this the tackiest wedding stunt he has ever heard of. He concludes, "I think the bride came up with this, since she wouldn't have enough class for a one-room schoolhouse."

(10) Obviously numerous social and ecological disasters await if you try to anything besides rice at a wedding. My feeling is, if rice is out, elope.

The last word

Dear Cecil:

While we're on the subject of exploding birds, rice, and Alka-Seltzer, perhaps you'll tackle another one, if it has not yet been resolved in the annals of science. I remember faintly from early childhood that if you give a frog a cigarette, it will continuously inhale until it explodes, a rather graphic example of the perils of smoking.

Cecil replies:

Peter, I'm counting to three. If you're not out of here by then, there's going to be an explosion. And it won't be the frog.

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