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The Straight Dope 

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On a recent NBC Today Show segment, some Martha Stewart wannabe said you shouldn't throw rice at weddings because it kills birds. Supposedly birds eat the rice, it swells in their stomachs, and they explode over playgrounds. Having cooked a lot of rice, I know it takes boiling heat and a good 20 minutes to get it to swell (aside from so-called Minute rice). It seems to me if any bird has an intestinal temperature near boiling, eating a few grains of rice is the least of its worries. Also, despite zillions of weddings, I don't recall seeing piles of blown-up pigeons near churches, nor do I remember seeing inordinate numbers of bird carcasses near rice paddies in southeast Asia. Is there any basis in fact to the rice = bird killer story, or is this yet another urban myth?

--David Thomas, via the Internet

Cecil humbly concedes that the final word cannot yet be written on this urgent subject. Instead, as is his custom, he merely recites the facts as ascertained to date:

(1) Personally I think the whole thing is BS, but if I just said that I'd be 500 words shy of a column.

(2) Having momentarily tired of the Internet, I had little Ed go on the Mara Tapp Show on WBEZ radio in Chicago to see if any of the Teeming Millions had seen birds exploding over playgrounds. Number of calls from kibitzers who wanted to hear what their voices sounded like on the radio: zillions. Number of sightings of detonated birds: zero. Told ya.

(3) One guy's idea of a major scientific contribution was to tell us he'd been in a cooking class in Minnesota ten years before, and they'd experimentally determined that dried rice doubles in volume when soaked. Like I didn't know this, you goof.

(4) Though maybe the guy's point was that you didn't need to have boiling or even hot water to do this. Little Ed isn't sure. You look at his notes, you think, wow, nice shorthand. Unfortunately he was writing in longhand.

(5) My brother-in-law told me that dried barley expands to three and a half times its original volume when soaked, so if you're looking for things to throw at weddings instead of rice I guess barley shouldn't be high on the list. Then again, my brother-in-law also told me he read in a World War II memoir about how they would parachute in bags of rice to the troops in Burma or someplace, and occasionally when a bag went astray people on the ground would later find an empty bag and an exploded cow nearby. But when I spent three hours in the library reading the memoir in question I found zip to support this tale, and it wouldn't surprise me if my brother-in-law hallucinated the bit about barley too.

(5) Getting back to WBEZ, another guy claimed he had a friend who was a physical anthropologist, and she told him that when she wants to separate the bones in a skull she fills it with rice and lets it sit in water overnight, whereupon the rice expands and forces the bones apart. The guy said in his opinion this didn't qualify as exploding. Maybe not, but it's not like having some bird swell up until its skull cracks open is a big improvement visualizationwise.

(6) Some people think that, from the point of view of bird endangerment, a distinction should be drawn between regular rice and Minute rice. These people are losers.

(7) When we queried the experts at Cornell University--you remember what a big help they were in exposing the grim truth about green potato chips--the director of education and information services wrote back as follows: "I do not have a prepared response [and why not?], but the simplest answer is, 'ricebirds' (bobolinks) have been eating rice throughout recorded history! It's really no different than the birds eating any grain, including millet or wheat, which they do all the time." Testify, sister.

(8) My assistant Jane--I tell you, nobody's going to say I didn't throw enough resources into this--says that, judging from her review of pertinent Web sites, the cool thing to do instead of throwing rice is to release clouds of butterflies. I'm not quite picturing this, but I guess you go to the bridal supply house and buy a box full of butterflies and hope most of them survive till the wedding. This is an improvement?

(9) A Presbyterian minister called WBEZ to say that the reason they didn't want you to throw rice at weddings was that it was like spreading little roller bearings all over the floor, and insurance companies didn't want the bride and groom to fall and break their necks. Though now that I think about it, using birdseed instead of rice is basically replacing roller bearings with ball bearings. Maybe we should rethink butterflies.

(10) I've said this before, I'll say it again.

Ain't science great?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.

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