It was Just A Ditch, Part II

I felt reasonably confident that I had seen a picture somewhere of two young women traversing a wooden boardwalk that was meant to provide a dry path over the ditches between campus and the trolley stop on the other side of Main Street. I had time to look today and indeed it exists. That’s Aline Ellis, ’18 and Helen Weinberg, ’17 saving their shoes from the mud.

For unrelated reasons I happened to be looking though Threshers from the early 1920s this afternoon and I noticed several complaints that these small bridges and walkways were frequently submerged. This is not hard to believe. Here’s a picture taken in roughly this same era. It was thoughtfully labeled by the scrapbook owner as “Lake Lovett.”

While I was at it, I started looking for images of the epic 1976 flood and was surprised that I couldn’t find any. If anyone has such a picture, please let me know. (This goes double for any photos of the bird invasion, of which there are also none.) In the meantime, I suspect that I might be able to turn up some evidence of the lingering damage it did on campus.

Bonus: Sorry, no bonus today.

Extra Bonus: Just kidding! Here’s a picture I took earlier this year of Alex Dessler, the founding chairman of Space Science, and Neal Lane visiting in the Pavilion.

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23 Responses to It was Just A Ditch, Part II

  1. Sandy Havens says:

    I don’t have any photos of the bird invasion but I do have a vivid memory. Helen and I were Masters of Jones College in 1976–the time of the great flood and one of the worst years of the bird invasion. Rice was trying everything to rid the campus of birds. You have no idea how noxious the campus would become after a couple of weeks of millions of birds roosting overnight in the trees. It was necessary to carry an umbrella when walking across campus at night.

    One of the related issues was student concern about the presence of thousands of dead birds every morning. Students were convinced that Rice must be poisoning birds. Students didn’t like the birds but they also didn’t like the thought that the Administration had authorized the poisoning of birds. Finally one of the biology profs pointed out that in a population of several million birds a certain percentage were going to die of natural causes on any given day.

    One of the shortest lived attempts to drive the birds away was to send a helicopter swooping low over the trees along the drive from the main entrance, over the president’s house, and along the stand of trees between there and the Campanile. The helicopter made one pass. Hundreds of thousands of panicked birds swarmed into the air and into the blades of the helicopter. The equally panicked pilot quickly aborted and zoomed skyward–leaving hundreds of thousands of shredded birds on that section of the campus. Unintended consequences.

  2. effegee says:

    The helicopter also ranks as one of the two noisiest. The other contender: a propane “cannon” mounted on a maintenance cart that drove around campus being set off several times an hour. Even with the discharge on the other side of campus, if you were anywhere near trees (under or beside), you were in danger from above when it was fired. The cannon probably wins first place because it was used a lot longer.

    • Mark Williamson says:

      As my wife reminds me, Central Kitchen made the unfortunate decision to serve rock cornish game hen several times during the bird infestation.

      • Melissa Kean says:

        That’s one of the funniest comments in the history of this blog.

      • mattnoall says:

        Was not that also the era when CK tried an entirely new entree enticingly named “veal birds?” I remember hearing about that in 1974 in a not fond memory discussion from the older students.

  3. gusschill says:

    Helen Weinberg taught me Civics at Lamar High School in 1951. I will never miss voting in an election because of her. She was great. Gus Schill

  4. James Medford says:

    Of course, the bird invasions provided opportunities for pranks, particularly if you were walking across campus at night and could see your roommate walking ahead of you underneath one of the trees in which the birds roosted. If you yelled loudly and/or clapped your hands, the birds would suddenly take off in fright and carpet bomb your roommate.

    Not that I ever did this.

  5. I’m sure I have some photos of the birds. I know I have one of Hiram Berry sorting the dead birds picked up by the groundskeepers. He was paid to do this as part of a bio department project. There were dozens of dead birds picked up each day and he sorted them by species and logged them. It was almost all cowbirds that day.

    As I remember, the bird mortality was somewhat high because there wasn’t enough food to support the huge flock. If there was a really cold night, there would be dead birds all around the campus.

    A few Thresher articles from the 70’s:

    1975, “More birds found on campus this year than last”:

    1976, “Number of birds expected to drop this season” (with photo by Wiley Sanders):

    1978, “Dr. Dan, bird expert, drops in for a return visit”:

    1979, “Bird flocks return to Rice again this year”:

  6. John Cook, if you can get hold of him should have pictures of the bird invasion, not only at Rice but also at at least one roosting area on the way to Rice. As I recall the eventual solution was to encourage the owls, and more important to eliminate the majority of the small horizontal branches from the trees, leaving no place for the birds to roost.

  7. mattnoall says:

    There is a good picture in the Thresher following the 1976 flood of Willy’s Pub. I think it was the front page. Sorry I do not have any. I was busy working at the Medical Center that summer and that flood generated a lot of excitement there as well. I got home the following morning, in fact

  8. Grungy says:

    Hiram, with the birds – the ’77 Trasher:

    There were also nets draped over the trees.
    What I recall as the ‘last’ of the discouragement techniques was aggressive trimming of the trees, to eliminate as many small-diameter roosting places as possible.
    That, and they may have just decided to move on…

    • Nice find! That would explain why I couldn’t find it in the archive, it was in the Rice Trasher. Oddly, the photo I remember is different, looking over Hiram’s shoulder at the dead birds. But then, the Trasher photo was taken by this Baldur Unterbaum guy, who I don’t remember being on the staff.

      The stories I linked to give a decent history of anti-bird tactics. Dr. Dan suggested the tree trimming and there is a theory that a reduction in gardening staff a few years earlier made the trees more attractive.

      The stories do not mention the Bird Scaring Device deployed every evening at the RMC patio to encourage birds to spend the night elsewhere.

  9. Grungy says:

    This is an amazing resource.
    It’s like having a shelf full of bound volumes.

  10. Deborah Gronke Bennett says:

    There are some good photos in the Campanile. I can scan these in if you can’t find the yearbooks.
    1976 Flood: 1977 Campanile, pages 16-17. The top picture on page 17 of Tina Garfield in the KTRU control room shows her sitting on a chair, up to her shoulders in flood water.
    Bird Invasion: 1977 Campanile, pages 28-29. One of the pictures is of Hiram sorting the birds.
    1975 Campanile, page 477 shows a flock of birds descending on the campus.
    1979 flood: 1979 Campanile, pages 22-23.

    While I was looking through the 1979 Campanile, I also spotted a good picture of that back door in the Hanszen old section we were talking about recently. It’s on page 262.

  11. Melissa Kean says:

    Thanks everyone for all your digging. When I get back from Thanksgiving next week I’ll see what else I can find. I know for certain that one of our manuscript collections contains several thick file folders about the evolution of the anti-bird thinking and I’ll pull those out. The Campanile pictures are great, but the way they are rendered in the published document leaves us with a very low quality image. Does anybody have any snapshots??

    • If you have a box of uncataloged stuff from Wiley Sanders, that would probably have some of the photos. He was Campanile editor for 1977 and Thresher photo editor in 1976.

      The Thresher flood photos are all credited to Chris Reed.

      I was not on campus during the 1976 flood. I have some photos of a later flood, maybe 1979.

      • Grungy says:

        I have Wiley’s negatives.
        This is not a good time to start digging through them, and I still haven’t found the transparency carriers for my scanner (since moving).

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