Birds Won’t Die if They Eat Rice

Myth: You shouldn’t throw rice at weddings because birds’ stomachs will rupture if they eat it.

In fact, birds can eat as much rice as they want (and some do, such as the bobolink, waterfowl, and shorebirds) without any internal problems.  This shouldn’t be too surprising given rice is just a seed and birds eat a lot of seeds with no ill effects.  Now you might say, “Yes, rice is a seed, but rice that is thrown at weddings is dried and somewhat highly processed, so your comparison doesn’t necessarily hold.”  True, so to answer whether instant and other types of dried rice hurts birds, we’ll have to turn to science!

Specifically, we’ll look at a 2002 study done by biologist Jim Krupa of the University of Kentucky that was later published in a 2005 edition of the journal, The American Biology Teacher.  Krupa was inspired to do a study on birds and rice after an almost even split occurred among his 600 students when he asked them if throwing rice at weddings was harmful to birds (45% thought the rice would kill the birds).

They started by experimenting with the expansion of various grains that birds commonly ate in order to see what the birds’ systems could handle.  What they found was that typical bird seed (the type that is now sometimes thrown at many weddings owing to the bird/rice myth) actually expands more than rice, at 40% expansion over rice’s 33%.  However, one type of rice did show pretty remarkable expansion, instant rice. Brown instant rice expanded at 240% its original volume and white instant rice expanded at 270%.

Few people throw instant rice at weddings as it’s a lot more expensive than “regular” dried rice, but the question remained as to whether instant rice could burst birds’ bellies or other parts of their digestive system. Conceptually, it seems like instant rice wouldn’t be a problem given how long it takes even dried instant rice to absorb moisture at around a bird’s  typical body temperature (for reference, pigeons sit around 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit or 37.7-43.3 degrees Celsius, depending on whether the birds are from the United States or pretty much everywhere else. ;-)).

Given that it seemed to them safe enough to try from a conceptual standpoint, they decided to go ahead with testing instant rice out on real birds (Krupa owned 60 doves and pigeons), which he went ahead and fed a diet of nothing but instant rice and water for 12 hours, as much as they wanted.

After 12 hours, the birds all lay dead at the bottom of their cages and Krupa was splashed with red paint by PETA after being fired for animal cruelty… Or… you know, the birds were all completely fine (which is what actually happened).  Not only were they all not dead at the end of the day, but during the 12 hour period while they were munching on instant rice, the birds were closely monitored for any signs of distress.  Not a single bird showed the slightest discomfort from eating the instant rice and, in fact, Krupa stated, “now they’re kind of addicted to it.”

How the myth that rice will cause birds’ stomachs to explode started isn’t known, but it has been around at least since the 1980s.  In 1985, a state representative from Connecticut, Mae S. Schmidle, decided to do what seemingly all politicians do all the time, namely pass laws that are based on subjects they are woefully ignorant about while not bothering to do any real research to educate themselves on it.  Specifically, Schmidle attempted to pass a law forbidding people from being able to throw rice at weddings to “prevent injury and death of birds as a result of ingesting raw rice thrown at weddings”, called “An Act Prohibiting The Use Of Uncooked Rice At Nuptial Affairs”.  The proposed penalty for breaking this law was to be a $50 fine.

As she stated,

The rice that’s left, that’s not in your hair or on your suit or in your bouquet, you leave for the birds.  Unfortunately, when the birds eat the raw rice, they cannot digest it. When it gets in their stomachs, it expands and causes them to have violent deaths. I’ve heard from several ministers who say that the next morning after a wedding, they see all these birds toppled over because they got poisoned by the rice. [There is not a single documented instance of this ever happening.]

She also went on to state that she knew at least one other state that outlawed throwing rice at weddings for this reason.  When asked which state, Schmidle replied that she didn’t know. (seriously)

Several ornithologists came forward and expressed their extreme skepticism over Schmidle’s claims, such as Roland C. Clement, president of the Connecticut Ornithological Association, who stated, “It sounds crazy. I have 50 years of professional experience as a practicing ornithologist and I’ve never heard of such a thing before. Of course, there can always be a first time, but I would have to see some evidence before I would promote the idea.”  As no such evidence could be produced,  the bill was never passed.

The myth got further traction thanks to Ann Landers, a.k.a. Esther Lederer.  Her column on May 21, 1988 stated the following:

Dear Ann Landers:  I have never seen this issue raised in your column; but it is something that every prospective bride and groom should think about, especially those who love birds.

I am getting married in September and I’d like to have birdseed thrown instead of rice.  Hard, dry rice is harmful to birds.  According to ecologists [Yes, you read that right, ecologists], it absorbs the moisture in their stomachs and kills them.  How can I get this message across to my guests, without sounding like some kind of nut? [Too late]  My fiancé is a bird-lover, too, and says it’s OK with him if I say this in the invitation- K.M.M., Long Island

Dear K.M.M.:  A Connecticut lawyer has introduced a bill banning instant rice from weddings because it can indeed be lethal to wildlife.  But to state this on the invitation would be in poor taste.  Ask your bridesmaids and ushers to pass the word to as many guests as possible.

Landers later issued a retraction, citing a letter from Steve Sibley, a Cornell ornithologist who stated,

Rice is not a threat to birds.  It must be boiled before it will expand. Furthermore, all the food that birds swallow is ground up by powerful muscles and grit in their gizzards.

Just shy of a decade later, Landers once again printed the same myth, presumably forgetting all about her column and retraction from 1988.

Despite the fact that rice is not harmful to birds, many churches still ban it for weddings, which perhaps has kept this myth going with people assuming the reason is that rice kills birds.  The real reason for the banning has nothing to do with the health of our avian friends.  Rather, it is due to rice being notoriously difficult to clean up if there aren’t a lot of birds around, particularly when there are additional weddings that day or the next day.  Further, it can potentially provide something of a slipping hazard on smooth floors. Nobody wants to see the bride break her neck running down the aisle.

Bonus Facts:

  • Rather than throw rice, according to Garret Datz who attended the wedding in question, a certain bride got the idea to release butterflies above all the spectators as she and the groom were walking down the aisle after tying the knot.  Releasing hundreds of butterflies might seem like a great idea and kudos to the people taking the time to capture them all.  But in this case, there was a problem.  After many hours stored in boxes, when it came time to release them from above, all the butterflies fell dead onto all the wedding guests… something of a metaphor for the way many marriages turn out, with the beautiful relationship dying a swift death when enclosed in the marriage box… 😉
  • In yet another wedding, rather than butterflies, a couple decided to go with doves.  They went down to the pet store and purchased some.  The problem was, doves at pet stores tend to have their wings clipped and these were no exception.  As the wedding concluded, the doves were released.  It was discovered at this point that the doves couldn’t fly owing to the aforementioned clipped wings.  Things went downhill from here. The doves attempted to ascend a nearby tree where they were subsequently attacked and killed by squirrels.  The organist quipped, “[I’m] not going to play for any more weddings where the ceremony calls for an animal sacrifice.”
  • “Ricebirds” or “bobolinks” are considered a major pest in some parts of South America where they will gather in large numbers in rice fields and chow down.  In Jamaica, this bird is used for food as they tend to be quite fat by the time they reach that stage of their migration.  As such, the Jamaicans call them “Butterbirds”.
  • Bobolinks can travel as much as 12,000 miles (19,000 km) in a single year.
  • “Instant” rice is typically made by precooking rice (blanching it with steam or hot water), then rinsing and dehydrating it in a large oven until the moisture content is under about 12%.  This allows the rice to be re-cooked much faster as the initial cooking ends up forming cracks and holes in the rice kernels, which allow water to penetrate the rice more quickly when re-cooked.
  • The downside of the process of making instant rice “instant” is that some of the minerals and proteins are lost making instant rice less nutritious than its non-precooked brethren, though manufactures sometimes add vitamins and minerals after the fact to help compensate for this.  Because instant rice takes additional processing, it also tends to be more expensive.
  • Speaking of the most nutritional way to prepare rice, there is a very time consuming method of preparing brown rice that also supposedly is one of the most nutritious way to cook it.  Specifically, you take brown rice and wash it.  Next, soak it in water that is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 hours (about the temperature of birds’ innards!).  Now cook the rice normally.  This step of placing it in warm water will make the rice begin to germinate, which produces a much more complete, at least as far as humans are concerned, amino acid profile.  Rice prepared this way is known as “Germinated Brown Rice”.
  • Rice is the second highest produced grain in the world after corn (maize).  However, while corn is #1 in production, it accounts for just 5% of the world’s dietary caloric intake for humans with rice providing a full 20% of that supply, 1% ahead of wheat.
  • The word “rice” comes from Greek “oryza”, meaning “rice”, which gave rise to all the European words for rice. The ultimate origin of the Greek word is somewhat disputed, but it is thought by many etymologists to come from the Sanskrit “vrihi-s”, also meaning “rice”.  “Rice” first popped up in English around the 13th century.
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  • jennifer anderson

    This is the funniest thing I’ve read all week — especially since it was slipped into the middle of a science article. Kudos! 🙂

    “After 12 hours, the birds all lay dead at the bottom of their cages and Krupa was splashed with red paint by PETA after being fired for animal cruelty… Or… you know, the birds were all completely fine (which is what actually happened).”

  • Haha too funny. I had to look this up as I wanted to put rice out for the birds rather than throwing it away. Thanks for the hard work researching.

  • i thought i would try this to see what would happen. i fed the birds in my back yard rice and they liked it. i went to the store to pick up more rice because i ran out. when i got back home my back yard was filled with dead birds.

  • Easy fix for the dry rice thrown at parties: cook the rice first !!! It will be already expanded when you are throwing it by handfuls at the lovely new couple and with the delicious grain properly prepared, ready at their disposal, the birds will be much more easily satisfied without danger of exploding and making a mess of the bride’s gown !