Many have long believed that raw rice grains wreak havoc on birds’ digestive systems, even leading to lethal consequences—but why?

By Tiffany Stevens
January 30, 2020
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They’re not often advertised as such, but weddings—in addition to being joyful, momentous occasions—are fantastic opportunities to throw things with or at your friends and relatives in a socially acceptable way. A bride, obviously, can throw bouquets to her bridesmaids, or a groom fling a garter to his groomsmen. And after the couple says I do, their guests sometimes get to pelt them with confetti, glitter, bird seed, rose petals, or a number of other fun, harmless projectiles. But the one thing you won’t see thrown as often at weddings anymore is rice. That marriage tradition, started because the rice was meant to symbolize prosperity and future good harvests, has faded out of popularity. Some places even ban throwing rice (or flower petals, or confetti) because they simply want to keep the space nice for the next newlyweds; rice is hard to get out of a lawn, and it presents a potential slipping hazard if scattered across concrete. But often, the rice tradition is nixed for the sake of area wildlife. Birds, its widely believed, will die, even explode, if they eat uncooked rice. 

That persistent urban myth can be traced back at least 30 years, to when former Connecticut State Rep. Mae S. Schmidle introduced a bill that would ban rice-throwing at weddings. Schmidle introduced the measure, which would enforce a $50 fine for rice-throwing, in 1985, and told reporters that she had received backing for the idea from the Audubon Society. In fact, she said, one other state had already banned throwing rice at weddings to protect the birds; she just couldn’t remember which one.

″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,” Schmidle told the Associated Press. “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.”

Bird experts, however, told the Associated Press that the bill was inherently silly. There was no evidence then, or now, that uncooked rice is harmful to birds. Still, the myth lived on, to be spread by pundits and by characters in hit TV shows. The Simpsons has even featured the myth in one of its episodes. And to the chagrin of many ornithologists, advice columnist Ann Landers promoted the myth in the column; even though she later retracted the claim, her column gave the myth significant credibility and visibility. 

As ornithologist Steven Sibley pointed out in his response to Landers’ column, the urban myth is laughable because a number of birds happen to adore rice. In fact, some species depend on wild and farmed rice to get through harsh winter seasons, according to a Snopes article written about the claim.

“(A)ll the food that birds swallow is ground up by powerful muscles and grit in their gizzards,” Sibley wrote. “Many birds love rice, as any frustrated rice farmer will tell you.”

If you want further proof that the claim is false, feel free to rely on this scientific study published in The American Biology Teacher, a peer-reviewed journal for those who teach biology to students ranging from kindergarten age through undergrad. In the study, a University of Kentucky professor, James Krupa, had his students experiment to see whether the rice myth could be true by testing out how much a grain of rice expands after being exposed to water. The students found out that bird seed actually expands far more than rice does (40 percent compared to 33 percent), meaning that if uncooked rice was enough to do the job, birds should already be dropping from the seed offered in backyard feeders across America. Since instant rice is sometimes rumored to be more harmful than other varieties, Krupa even tested that theory as well. Once he was certain that it was likely impossible for the rice to harm a bird, he fed a flock of doves and pigeons he kept at home a diet of instant rice and water for one day. As he predicted the birds were fine. Not a single explosion in sight.

So if you’re a sucker for tradition, feel free to throw allow your guests to throw some rice (if your venue allows it). Arguably, it’s a much better choice than throwing materials which degrade far less easily, either out in the elements or in an avian friend’s stomach. It may not be as pretty as confetti, but at least rice allows you to celebrate your loved ones and feed the wildlife, guilt-free.