An urban legend that keeps cropping up, especially during the busy wedding season, is that you shouldn’t throw rice because birds will eat it, the rice will immediately begin absorbing water in the bird’s body, swell and, if there is enough rice, it will kill the bird.
The facts: This isn’t true. Ornithologists write that rice is perfectly safe for birds to eat. David Emery, urban legends researcher for the information website About.com, notes that wild rice is a dietary staple for many birds, as are other grains, such as wheat and barley, that expand when they absorb moisture.
Believers seem to forget, Emery says, that the rate at which dried grains absorb liquids is really slow except when it is being cooked.
Besides, like people, birds can digest things, too. Long before any uncooked rice consumed by a bird could expand and harm the animal, it would have already been ground up in the bird’s crop and well into the process of being broken down into nutrients and waste by the acids and enzymes in its digestive tract.
It’s unclear, Emery writes, exactly how and when this misconception originated, though it was most famously promulgated by advice columnist Ann Landers in 1988 when she published a letter from a reader warning prospective brides and grooms against the practice of throwing rice at weddings:
“Dear Ann: I have never seen this issue raised in your column, but it is something every prospective bride 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, 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 a nut? My fiance is a bird lover, too, and says it’s OK with him if I say this in the invitation. — K.M.M., Long Island”
Landers said in her reply that a Connecticut legislator had recently proposed a ban on rice throwing at weddings for precisely that reason. She said that putting the note in the wedding invitation would be tacky and, instead, the couple should have members of their wedding parties spread the word.
Emery found that the advice columnist’s answer was met with skepticism by bird experts everywhere, including Cornell ornithologist Steven C. Sibley, who wrote in a letter subsequently quoted by Landers:
“There is absolutely no truth to the belief that rice [even instant] can kill birds. … I hope you will print this information in your column and put an end to this myth. In the meantime, keep throwing rice, folks. Tradition will be served and the birds will eat well and be healthy.”