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Does Wedding Rice Really Make Birds Explode?

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Throwing rice at a newly married couple has been a tradition for thousands of years, possibly going back as far as the ancient Assyrians and Egyptians. The idea is to give the newlyweds good luck, fertility, and abundance using this symbol of a good crop. More recently, wedding meddlers have cautioned against throwing rice because it can kill birds who swoop down and eat it after the human revelers have left for the reception. The rice grains, absorbent as they are, supposedly start sucking up water in the birds’ moist innards and cause them to violently burst.

It's not clear where this idea came from, but it hit the peak of its popularity in the late 1980s when the Connecticut state legislature discussed a bill outlawing the tossing of rice at weddings and advice columnist Ann Landers printed a letter about the practice.

Wherever it came from, you can quit worrying about the birds.

The reality is that rice poses no harm to them. Wild birds eat uncooked rice all the time with no ill effects. Many types of waterfowl, shorebirds, and migratory birds depend on flooded rice fields to maintain fat in the winter. A bird called the bobolink eats enough rice that it's considered a pest by farmers and has earned the nickname "ricebird."

Besides the numerous birds that regularly eat rice and don’t explode, another thing to consider is the fact that dried rice grains are pretty slow to absorb liquid unless it's boiling, which birds’ stomachs certainly aren’t. Their internal temperatures generally range from 100.4 to 107.6 degrees F, well below the boiling point of any liquid that would be inside them. Even if birds did have boiling guts, any uncooked rice they consumed would be broken down well enough by their crops and gizzards that the pieces shouldn’t cause any problems as they expand.

Mythbusters or Gutbusters?

Now, these explanations of why rice is not bad for birds rely on two things: what we know about birds, and what we know about rice. We understand both pretty well, but wouldn’t a good experiment go a long way toward putting the myth to rest?

That’s what James Krupa’s students at the University of Kentucky thought. During the spring 2002 semester, Krupa and his 600 biology students decided to test the exploding bird myth with a series of experiments. They looked at the expansion of different types of grains, considered the strength of birds’ digestive organs, and tested an all-rice diet out on the professor’s pet birds.

The first notable thing they found was that white rice increased in volume by 33% when soaked, while bird seed expanded by 40%. If rice was going to make birds explode, then we’d already doomed them anyway with birdfeeders full of seed. The most significant expansion was seen in white and brown instant rice, which expanded 2.4 to 2.7 times its original volume when soaked. Of course, instant rice is usually more expensive than the regular stuff and comes in smaller quantities, so it's not very likely that anyone is throwing around opened packages of Uncle Ben’s at weddings.

But what if they did? To see if instant rice could burst a bird from the inside out, Krupa and his students built model bird crops from very thin plastic and from wet paper bags, and filled them with various grains and water. None of the plastic crops exploded, but a paper bag filled with instant white rice expanded and ruptured in about 15 minutes.

Not satisfied with their bird-gut surrogates, the students begged Krupa to test the rice out on real birds. Krupa felt confident enough that no birds would be harmed based on their previous results, so he agreed to turn the flocks of doves and pigeons he kept at home into guinea pigs. He fed 60 of his birds a diet of nothing but instant rice and water for a day, and monitored them for signs of distress or discomfort. Krupa reported that no birds choked, exploded, or otherwise were injured or died. None of them threw up or even showed any sign that they were in pain; they went through their all-rice day with no problems.

Birds, it seems, have no problem with rice, but this doesn’t mean that it's perfectly safe to throw at weddings. Hard, tubular grains spread out on the sidewalk in front of a church can still create a slipping hazard for another animal: wedding guests. The fear of slip and fall injuries and the lawsuits that go with them have led some wedding venues to ban rice—not for the birds, but to keep themselves out of court.

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Extinct Penguin Species Was the Size of an Adult Human
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A penguin that waddled across the ice 60 million years ago would have dwarfed the king and emperor penguins of today, according to the Associated Press. As indicated by fossils recently uncovered in New Zealand, the extinct species measured 5 feet 10 inches while swimming, surpassing the height of an average adult man.

The discovery, which the authors say is the most complete skeleton of a penguin this size to date, is laid out in a study recently published in Nature Communications. When standing on land, the penguin would have measured 5 feet 3 inches, still a foot taller than today’s largest penguins at their maximum height. Researchers estimated its weight to have been about 223 pounds.

Kumimanu biceae, a name that comes from Maori words for “monster" and "bird” and the name of one researcher's mother, last walked the Earth between 56 million and 60 million years ago. That puts it among the earliest ancient penguins, which began appearing shortly after large aquatic reptiles—along with the dinosaurs—went extinct, leaving room for flightless carnivorous birds to enter the sea.

The prehistoric penguin was a giant, even compared to other penguin species of the age, but it may not have been the biggest penguin to ever live. A few years ago, paleontologists discovered 40-million-year-old fossils they claimed belonged to a penguin that was 6 feet 5 inches long from beak to tail. But that estimate was based on just a couple bones, so its actual size may have varied.

[h/t AP]

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Animals
Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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