The Truth About Birds and Wedding Rice

Wedding guests throwing rice at bride and groom
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Throwing rice is a wedding tradition that likely has its origins in ancient Rome. Back then, attendees threw wheat. Over the centuries, wheat became seed, and then rice. In every case, the gesture symbolized the fruitfulness of marriage, both spiritually and physically.

Bye, Bye Birdie?

But maybe you've heard the urban legend that throwing rice at weddings is dangerous to ground-feeding birds like pigeons. After the party is over, it is said, birds will come and eat it. White rice, being as dehydrated as it is, will immediately begin absorbing water upon entering the moist environment of the bird's body. It will then swell up, and if there is enough of it in there, the bird's body will explode, killing the poor little critter.

Origin of the Myth

It's unclear exactly how and when this myth originated, though it was most famously promulgated by advice columnist Ann Landers in 1988 when she published ​a letter 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

Credulous as always, Landers noted in her reply that a Connecticut legislator had recently proposed a ban on rice throwing at weddings for precisely that reason. 

Myth Busted

Landers's response, as well as the proposed Connecticut bill, was greeted 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 fact, rice is perfectly safe for birds to eat. Wild rice is a dietary staple for many birds, as are other grains that expand when they absorb moisture (wheat and barley, for example).

One thing purveyors of this myth fail to take into account is that the rate at which dried grains absorb liquids is pretty slow except when it takes place at cooking temperatures. Then there's the digestive process. Long before any uncooked rice consumed by a bird could expand and cause harm, it would have already been ground up in the bird's crop (a pouch in its esophagus that aids in digestion) and would be well into the process of being broken down into nutrients and waste by the acids and enzymes in its digestive tract.

As Sibley went on to say in his letter to Landers, "...keep throwing rice, folks. Tradition will be served, and the birds will eat well and be healthy."