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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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Animals
Watch as Hummingbirds Fly, Drink, and Flap Their Tiny Wings in Slow Motion
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Hummingbirds have more feathers per inch than nearly any other bird, but it’s hard to fully appreciate their luminescent colors when they beat their wings between 70 to 200 times per second.

For the enjoyment of birders everywhere, National Geographic photographer Anand Varma teamed up with bird biologists and used a high-speed, high-resolution camera to capture the tiny creatures in slow motion as they flew through wind tunnels, drank artificial nectar from a glass vessel, and shook water from their magnificent plumage.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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Scientists Study the Starling Invasion Unleashed on America by a Shakespeare Fan

On a warm spring day, the lawn outside the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan gleams with European starlings. Their iridescent feathers reflect shades of green and indigo—colors that fade to dowdy brown in both sexes after the breeding season. Over the past year, high school students from different parts of the city came to this patch of grass for inspiration. "There are two trees at the corner I always tell them to look at," Julia Zichello, senior manager at the Sackler Educational Lab at the AMNH, recalls to Mental Floss. "There are holes in the trees where the starlings live, so I was always telling them to keep an eye out."

Zichello is one of several scientists leading the museum's Science Research Mentoring Program, or SRMP. After completing a year of after-school science classes at the AMNH, New York City high school students can apply to join ongoing research projects being conducted at the institution. In a recent session, Zichello collaborated with four upperclassmen from local schools to continue her work on the genetic diversity of starlings.

Before researching birds, Zichello earned her Ph.D. in primate genetics and evolution. The two subjects are more alike than they seem: Like humans, starlings in North America can be traced back to a small parent population that exploded in a relatively short amount of time. From a starting population of just 100 birds in New York City, starlings have grown into a 200-million strong flock found across North America.

Dr. Julia Zichello
Dr. Julia Zichello
©AMNH

The story of New York City's starlings began in March 1890. Central Park was just a few decades old, and the city was looking for ways to beautify it. Pharmaceutical manufacturer Eugene Schieffelin came up with the idea of filling the park with every bird mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. This was long before naturalists coined the phrase "invasive species" to describe the plants and animals introduced to foreign ecosystems (usually by humans) where their presence often had disastrous consequences. Non-native species were viewed as a natural resource that could boost the aesthetic and cultural value of whatever new place they called home. There was even an entire organization called the American Acclimatization Society that was dedicated to shipping European flora and fauna to the New World. Schieffelin was an active member.

He chose the starling as the first bird to release in the city. It's easy to miss its literary appearance: The Bard referenced it exactly once in all his writings. In the first act of Henry IV: Part One, the King forbids his knight Hotspur from mentioning the name of Hotspur's imprisoned brother Mortimer to him. The knight schemes his way around this, saying, "I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him to keep his anger still in motion."

Nearly three centuries after those words were first published, Schieffelin lugged 60 imported starlings to Central Park and freed them from their cages. The following year, he let loose a second of batch of 40 birds to support the fledgling population.

It wasn't immediately clear if the species would adapt to its new environment. Not every bird transplanted from Europe did: The skylark, the song thrush, and the bullfinch had all been subjects of American integration efforts that failed to take off. The Acclimatization Society had even attempted to foster a starling population in the States 15 years prior to Schieffelin's project with no luck.

Then, shortly after the second flock was released, the first sign of hope appeared. A nesting pair was spotted, not in the park the birds were meant to occupy, but across the street in the eaves of the American Museum of Natural History.

Schieffelin never got around to introducing more of Shakespeare's birds to Central Park, but the sole species in his experiment thrived. His legacy has since spread beyond Manhattan and into every corner of the continent.

The 200 million descendants of those first 100 starlings are what Zichello and her students made the focus of their research. Over the 2016-2017 school year, the group met for two hours twice a week at the same museum where that first nest was discovered. A quick stroll around the building reveals that many of Schieffelin's birds didn't travel far. But those that ventured off the island eventually spawned populations as far north as Alaska and as far south as Mexico. By sampling genetic data from starlings collected around the United States, the researchers hoped to identify how birds from various regions differed from their parent population in New York, if they differed at all.

Four student researchers at the American Museum of Natural History
Valerie Tam, KaiXin Chen, Angela Lobel and Jade Thompson (pictured left to right)
(©AMNH/R. Mickens)

There are two main reasons that North American starlings are appealing study subjects. The first has to do with the founder effect. This occurs when a small group of individual specimens breaks off from the greater population, resulting in a loss of genetic diversity. Because the group of imported American starlings ballooned to such great numbers in a short amount of time, it would make sense for the genetic variation to remain low. That's what Zichello's team set out to investigate. "In my mind, it feels like a little accidental evolutionary experiment," she says.

The second reason is their impact as an invasive species. Like many animals thrown into environments where they don't belong, starlings have become a nuisance. They compete with native birds for resources, tear through farmers' crops, and spread disease through droppings. What's most concerning is the threat they pose to aircraft. In 1960, a plane flying from Boston sucked a thick flock of starlings called a murmuration into three of its four engines. The resulting crash killed 62 people and remains the deadliest bird-related plane accident to date.

Today airports cull starlings on the premises to avoid similar tragedies. Most of the birds are disposed of, but some specimens are sent to institutions like AMNH. Whenever a delivery of dead birds arrived, it was the students' responsibility to prep them for DNA analysis. "Some of them were injured, and some of their skulls were damaged," Valerie Tam, a senior at NEST+m High School in Manhattan, tells Mental Floss. "Some were shot, so we had to sew their insides back in."

Before enrolling in SRMP, most of the students' experiences with science were limited to their high school classrooms. At the museum they had the chance to see the subject's dirty side. "It's really different from what I learned from textbooks. Usually books only show you the theory and the conclusion, but this project made me experience going through the process," says Kai Chen, also a senior at NEST+m.

After analyzing data from specimens in the lab, an online database, and the research of previous SRMP students, the group's hypothesis was proven correct: Starlings in North America do lack the genetic diversity of their European cousins. With so little time to adapt to their new surroundings, the variation between two starlings living on opposite coasts could be less than that between the two birds that shared a nest at the Natural History Museum 130 years ago.

Students label samples in the lab.
Valerie Tam, Jade Thompson, KaiXin Chen and Angela Lobel (pictured left to right) label samples with Dr. Julia Zichello.
©AMNH/C. Chesek

Seeing how one species responds to bottlenecking and rapid expansion can provide important insight into species facing similar conditions. "There are other populations that are the same way, so I think this data can help [scientists],” Art and Design High School senior Jade Thompson says. But the students didn't need to think too broadly to understand why the animal was worth studying. "They do affect cities when they're searching for shelter," Academy of American Studies junior Angela Lobel says. “They can dig into buildings and damage them, so they're relevant to our actual homes as well.”

The four students presented their findings at the museum's student research colloquium—an annual event where participants across SRMP are invited to share their work from the year. Following their graduation from the program, the four young women will either be returning to high school or attending college for the first time.

Zichello, meanwhile, will continue where she left off with a new batch of students in the fall. Next season she hopes to expand her scope by analyzing older specimens in the museum's collections and obtaining bird DNA samples from England, the country the New York City starlings came from. Though the direction of the research may shift, she wants the subject to remain the same. "I really want [students] to experience the whole organism—something that's living around them, not just DNA from a species in a far-away place." she says. "I want to give them the picture that evolution is happening all around us, even in urban environments that they may not expect."

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