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The Straight Dope 

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Not to ask a stupid question, but...why are covered bridges covered? It can't have been just because they look good that way in the postcards.

--Laura Wargo, Naperville, Illinois

There is much misinformation about this in our society, and I am glad to lift the veil of ignorance at last. You realize, first of all, that covered bridges are wooden. Excuse me if I spell this out too carefully, but these days one can leave nothing to chance. The uninformed believe covered bridges are covered to protect the wooden flooring from snow. Ha! Who cares about the flooring? Flooring is cheap. I mean, unless you get parquet with a nice inlay. But this is not typically what you find in a covered bridge. A few characters also say the bridges were covered to prevent horses from getting spooked when they realized they were above flowing water, but about this theory we will not even speak.

What you're really trying to protect in a covered bridge are the structural members--the trusses. Made of heavy timber, these are the expensive part of the bridge, and if they fall apart due to exposure to the elements, so does the bridge. An unprotected wooden bridge will last maybe ten years. Put a cover over it, however, and it'll last for centuries. Or at least until some birdbrain decides to burn it down, the fate of quite a few covered bridges in recent years. But I digress.

Covering a wooden bridge is easy. The trusses already form a boxlike framework of struts and stuff. Tack on some rafters and shingles and siding, and there you go. OK, it's not brain surgery, but somebody had to think it up, and the somebody usually credited is Timothy Palmer, who built the prototypical American covered bridge in Philadelphia between 1800 and 1804. Over time there have been anywhere from 3,000 to 16,000, depending on who's doing the estimating. Today fewer than 800 remain. Be assured, however, that this dwindling number is the result of progress, heavy trucks, and teenagers, not exposure to the rain.

THINGS WE DIDN'T NEED TO KNOW

Concerning your column about whether you shouldn't throw rice at weddings because birds eat it, it swells up in their guts, and they explode [May 2]--well, maybe not rice. However, one day in D.C. I tried to figure out what I was seeing on the sidewalk, even though it was gruesome. It was [WARNING! Disgusting part follows!] a dead pigeon, its throat split vertically, and oozing out of it like stuffing out of a turkey, solidly packed split and whole kernels of dried corn. It really did look like that is what killed the bird. Maybe it had an obstruction of some sort.

I like your column a lot.

--Eloise Needleman, Annapolis, Maryland

Uh, thanks, Eloise. Nothing personal, but I'm glad I've never gone out on a date with you.

I also have a note from Tim Erskine, who reports that he saw a bird "torn asunder" by the rice in its stomach. Tim says he saw this 25 years ago. This is not what I would call high-quality scientific evidence. Then again, it's not like I want anybody sending me something fresh.

Other baby steps on the road to knowledge:

(1) Numerous parties feel I should take up a related myth about feeding Alka-Seltzer to seagulls. "The birds have no means to pass gas orally or ventrally," Wayne writes, "so they just go in a burst of feathers!" Uh-huh. Wayne is hereby named High Commissioner of Experimental Alka-Seltzer

Seagull Feeding. I expect a full report.

(2) An anonymous benefactor sent me a long excerpt from the Web site run by the USA Rice Federation. One learns that rice farmers set aside 500,000 acres of rice fields for overwintering waterfowl habitat, with 300 pounds of "residual grains" left per acre! Think of it: thousands of circling birds, detonating like flak bursts in Twelve o'Clock High! But the rice federation says bull. They quote another expert from Cornell, who says birds have powerful muscles and grit in their stomachs to grind up the rice before it reaches critical mass.

(3) The federation also says Ann Landers told the exploding bird story in a 1988 column, retracted it, then spread the same line of baloney in a 1996 column. You see why eradicating world ignorance is such a slow process.

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

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