Dear Urban Legends:
An urban legend that I've heard (most recently by a teacher during a discussion in a high school English class) is that you shouldn't throw rice at weddings, because after the party is over, birds will come and eat it. White rice, being as dehydrated as it is, will immediately begin absorbing water upon entering the moist environment of the bird's body. It will then swell up, and if there is enough of it in there, the bird's body (specifically the crop, where the food first goes to be stored) will burst, killing the poor little critter. Is there any truth to it?
No truth to it at all, according to ornithologists, who ought to know. Wild rice is a dietary staple for many birds, as are other grains that expand when they absorb moisture such as wheat and barley.
One factor purveyors of this myth fail to take into account is that the rate at which dried grains absorb liquids is pretty darned slow unless it takes place at cooking temperature. Also, there's a biological process you may be familiar with called digestion. Long before any uncooked rice consumed by a bird could expand enough to cause harm, it would have already been ground up in its crop and in the process of being broken down into nutrients and waste by the acids and enzymes in the bird's digestive tract.
It's unclear exactly how and when this misconception originated, though it was most famously promulgated by advice columnist Ann Landers when she published a letter warning prospective brides and grooms against the practice of throwing rice at weddings on May 21, 1988:
Credulous as always, Landers noted in her reply that a Connecticut legislator had recently proposed a ban on rice throwing at weddings for precisely that reason. This was greeted with skepticism by bird experts everwhere, including Cornell ornithologist Steven C. Sibley, who wrote in a letter subsequently published by Landers, "There is absolutely no truth to the belief that rice (even instant) can kill birds. . . . I hope you will print this information in your column and put an end to this myth. In the meantime, keep throwing rice, folks. Tradition will be served and the birds will eat well and be healthy."
Dear Ann: I have never seen this issue raised in your column, but it is something every prospective bride should think about, especially those who love birds.
I am getting married in September and I'd like to have birdseed thrown instead of rice. Hard, dry rice is harmful to birds. According to ecologists, it absorbs the moisture in their stomachs and kills them.
How can I get this message across to my guests, without sounding like some kind of a nut? My fiance is a bird lover, too, and says it's OK with him if I say this in the invitation. -- K.M.M., Long Island
Sources and further reading:
Bird Feeding Myths
About.com: Birding/Wild Birds
This Proposal Is for the Birds
Tom Hritz column, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 15 Feb. 1985
Ann Landers - May 21, 1988
Ann Landers - Aug. 17, 1988
Q&A: Rice and Birds
New York Times, 6 July 1993
Rice-Bird Story Is a Myth
Danbury News-Times, 10 October 2008