“Birds Flock to Rice to Die”

I’ve heard some wild tales about the years when the campus was seasonally overrun with huge flocks of birds. We apparently tried cannons, nets, noisemakers, bird whisperers, etc. to drive them off, all to no avail. And then one year they mysteriously didn’t return and haven’t been back in those numbers since. (I hold my breath every fall.)

The other day this undated clipping that documents one especially grisly aspect of the annual visit fell out from between the pages of a scrapbook I was looking at. I have to sheepishly admit that I had a good laugh at the temerity of those birds that dropped dead in some big shot’s reserved parking spot.

Dead Birds nd in  scrapbook

I’ve never been able to pin down the precise beginning and end dates of this invasion. And although I’ve seen a couple of reproduced photos, both this sad one and a couple in the Campanile, we don’t have a single original picture of it in the archives. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Bonus: In case you weren’t aware, Rice’s women’s tennis team is fantastic.

P1080616

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29 Responses to “Birds Flock to Rice to Die”

  1. Syd says:

    They built Herring Hall when I was there. The common opinion amongst my friends was that the birds did not come back after it was built. They were certainly there in Spring 1984 and 1985, but they were not there afterwards.

  2. C Kelly says:

    I can confirm from first-hand experience they were flocking around the campus from 1969 to 1972.

  3. Buddy Chuoke says:

    I can remember the sights, sounds, and unfortunately the smells of the bird invasions of the early to mid-1970’s like it was yesterday. Right out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

  4. I can’t comment on the Herring Hall explanation. They did go away in the mid-80s. The only other place I saw that kind of concentration of birds was the Galleria. Seems like somewhere I read that the Grounds crews pruned the smaller branches from some of the trees and that discouraged them from roosting.

  5. Umbrellas were required equipment at night during the ’70’s. A particularly evil prank that used to be played was to walk quietly a few hundred feet behind an unsuspecting victim, and when they were deep in the middle of a group of infested trees, the perpetrator would start yelling and screaming, causing the birds to all take flight…after first having made themselves lighter.

    When I was a freshman, Houston had about 4″ of snow during the beginning of “bird season”. I saw a snow encrusted bird beside the walk, and not knowing any better, picked it up, broke the snow off of it, and set it in a dry spot. An upperclassman who saw me do that called me a few choice names, and told me I would soon regret assisting it when it pooped on my head.

    I do remember the tree trimming effort Marty refers to. I think there was a Thresher article about it, but I am unable to find it. I think it happened over the summer of 1976, and it did seem to help.

    • Richard A. Schafer says:

      I will admit to having pulled such a prank at least once. As I remember, the efforts to get rid of the birds involved everything from noise makers (which only resulted in “lighter birds”), helicopters, and nets. Nothing really worked, until the year the migratory pattern changed for whatever reason.

    • Wendy Laubach '78 says:

      Yes, a single loud clap of the hands was enough to make a whole tree-ful take flight and poop on anyone underneath. The poop was very thick on the ground every bird season from 1974-1978, and the stench was amazing.

  6. John Polking says:

    I, too, heard a long time ago that trimming the small branches from the trees resulted in the birds not returning.

  7. Monica Coe says:

    Back in 1976-1980, when Jones and Brown Colleges were still all-female, we ladies were particularly vulnerable on the long walkway in front of the former president’s house that led to the central quadrangle. I never went anywhere without an umbrella during “bird season.”

  8. James Medford says:

    One had to be particularly careful in the morning when walking down a sidewalk under live oaks where the birds roosted. Those sidewalks were a bit slippery. The smell was pretty bad, especially if you were hung over. One of my freshman advisers would launch bottle rockets into the trees out by the track stadium just to see the birds take off in a massive cloud.

  9. Keith Cooper says:

    I recall more than one expedition to wake the birds behind what is now Huff House (then the President’s residence) with bottle rockets

    • James Medford says:

      That’s probably what led Dr. Hackerman to get the trees around his house pruned.

      • Richard Miller (Hanszen '75 & '76) says:

        One of the stories going around at the time was that, at the insistence of Mrs. Hackerman that something be done, they covered the trees around the patio with netting to prevent them from roosting (forgetting that birds can walk). The story was that they were left with a bunch of very frustrated birds who were unable to fly out and thus provided a 24 hour downpour onto his patio

  10. It was truly vile. The RMC staff had a beat up aluminum rack shelf labeled “bird scaring device”. Part of the job was to go out to the Robert H. Ray Memorial Courtyard and scare the birds away so they would not roost there overnight and poop on students visiting the RMC. This involved throwing the BSD high into the air then dashing for cover as it bounced around. Then doing it again and again.

    Here is a photo from the Thresher illustrating an instructive job for the Bio department. The gardeners collected all the dead birds every day, and a student was paid to sort them into species and count them. Though this photo is in the April 1 edition, this was a real job. I believe that is Hiram Berry sorting the dead birds. I took the photo. That was a lot of dead birds.

    http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth245333/m1/1/

    One of the Bio profs was our bird infestation specialist and was the standard interview for that.

    The general explanation was that the cowbirds (nasty beings) moved to Rice after their favorite trees were cut down nearby, perhaps at the medical center.

    Tree pruning was one of the bird mitigation strategies. It worked a little bit.

    I once had a bird poop hit the inside of my glasses and splatter on my cheek. Lovely.

    • monicajcoe says:

      I seem to recall people saying that the birds migrated down to Houston for the winter. Supposedly they would feed at the rice fields outside of town during the day, and then head over to Rice and Hermann Park to roost at dusk.

  11. Here is one Thresher interview with Dr. Dan Johnson, the bird man, in 1974.

    http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth245183/m1/1/

  12. mjthannisch says:

    Specifically it was the horizontal small branches that were pruned taking away roosting space. Looking at the birds listed, I am a bit surprised, because I do not remember robins. But I do remember grackles. Grackles were not in Houston in 1970, but showed up in ever increasing numbers sometime between 1970 and 1974. I would be grateful if someone could tell me the exact year. John Cook in West U should have some good bird pictures. He took several for the Thresher, and I remember going someplace with him to take pictures of the birds before their stoop at Rice.

  13. Susanne Glasscock says:

    Melissa–

    ‘Hope you get more definitive comments about “The Birds”——but I do remember them being a particular problem in the late 1980s—it was amazing to see them rise together!!

    We called them ‘crackles’—whether correct or not —– And a story that circulated was that after all the aluminum pie pans, brooms, noise makers, etc there was one effective ‘clearing of the birds’——according to the story, —“at the time of the 1990 Economic Summit Meeting at Rice there was a 21 gun salute arranged. The 21 howitzers were lined up across Main Street in Hermann Park ——-by the time the 4th cannon was fired the skies were black——-and the crackles did not return after the full round of 21 ‘booms’—–” OK—-that is the story, just a story told at ‘cocktail parties’—–might want to check with John Boles on that one

    Good Luck—

    Susie

  14. When I was in junior high and high school in Lake Jackson, I too remember a large influx of grackles into the Texas coastal areas, c. 1973. By the time I was at Rice in the early 80s the common perception was that the birds were primarily grackles, with their harsh, annoying calls. It is certainly true that in February the bird droppings, coupled with the frequent rain, would make the sidewalks a stinky, slippery mess. It was, perhaps, not the bucolic picture of Rice that recruiters would present. 😉 I remember propane cannons, but I think their effect was very limited.

  15. grungy1973 says:

    Once borrowed The MOB’s largest crash cymbals, took up a position near the Fairy Fountain (not under any tree limbs), and tested them on the local bird population.
    The first crash did almost nothing.
    The exodus didn’t begin until after the second crash – a measure of how fast a bird’s tiny brain can awaken and decide to flee, in the dark.
    The third crash almost masked the giant plopping sound…

  16. almadenmike says:

    The huge flocks of birds did not roost at Rice when I arrived (Fall 1966), but came a few years later … 1968/69, I’d guess, but I’m not sure. I believe the boat/great-tailed grackles were always there, though. I’d thought that the seasonal flocks were largely robins, blackbirds/starlings (and/or smaller grackles) and cowbirds.

    I’d hope that Dr. Johnson (Thresher article link above) or another contemporary wrote up a definitive history of those annual bird invasions.

  17. Melissa Kean says:

    I have a notion of where I might find some of the documentation but I’m out of town until next week. I’ll definitely have a look then.

  18. Try this paper, it has lots of detail: “Experimental Tree Trimming to Control an Urban Winter Blackbird Roost”, Heidi B. Good and Dan M. Johnson, Rice University. It has maps and everything. It was the first search result for “dan johnson birds rice”.

    http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=icwdmbirdcontrol

    • Two later papers to look up, “Nonlethal blackbird roost control” Pest Control 46:14ff (1978, Good and Johson).

      Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) Mortality in an Urban Winter Roost
      D. M. Johnson, G. L. Stewart, M. Corley, R. Ghrist, J. Hagner, A. Ketterer, B. McDonnell, W. Newsom, E. Owen and P. Samuels
      The Auk
      Vol. 97, No. 2 (Apr., 1980), pp. 299-320
      Published by: American Ornithologists’ Union
      Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4085703

      I could not find these in full-text online, only citations.

      • Wow, the paper gives peak bird population at Rice of a half million. There were over 600kg of bird droppings in both January and February. So when people say it was bad, believe them.

  19. Heidi B Good says:

    So, I am the above Heidi B Good who worked on the blackbirds with Dr. Dan Johnson for my PhD back in 1979. It was a great biology thesis project to have as the travel time to the birds in question was nil! And Hiram Berry was indeed one of my work-study students who helped with the project. It was quite the roost in its time and really was quite smelly and gross with al the dead birds as well. And clanging of pots, installing netting above trees via helicopter (what a sight!) fake owls, recorded distress calls ,firecrackers etc etc were all tried to no avail.
    You could see the flight lines of birds coming in from all directions to roost in the evenings. First the birds would settle in some nearby trees, usually in the neighborhood yards and “stage”. Which is a whole bunch of them gossiping and chattering and jumping about. You can still this all over town in some of the trees in shopping centers or on phone lines. After staging, they find their night-time roosting spot and settle down.
    The birds were a mixture of species – grackles (both common and great tailed), cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, starlings and robins. They flew out to the rice fields around Houston every morning. The vast number of these birds migrate back north to breed after March and return around November. A sizable population lives in Houston year round .
    One of the things I did to measure the number of birds roosting on campus was to collect samples of overnight poop on filter paper mounted on a pizza board, each planted with a wooden dowel. It looked like flat white mushrooms sprouting all over the campus wooded areas.
    You could then dry out the poop on the filter paper in an oven, measure the tare weight of the dried poop and come up with something like a contour map of the depth of overnight poop beneath the roost. As I recall, one grackle pooped out about 1 gram of poop a night, making the calculation fairly easy.
    The upshot of my work was that the healthy and least stressed birds roosted in the densest areas, i.e. where the poop was deepest, and they are the leaders of the pack. The guys roosting at the edges were the least fit and those were the ones that died overnight.
    So, knowing exactly in which trees the leader birds roosted, we set about modifying those trees to make them less cozy. Some were trimmed by one third, and others were removed entirely. Rice had been wanting to thin out the Main Street woods area anyway, so i told them which specific trees to take out.
    After that was done, the leader birds did not like/find their favorite areas to roost when they came in for the evening, so they found other places OFF CAMPUS and took all their flocks with them. And as long as those really comfy and preferred roosting trees are kept trimmed, the birds should not return. And I am amazed that this has been kept up and the birds have not been back since. So nowadays they still come to Houston for the winter, but roost and annoy people all over town, rather than at Rice. And that is all my fault!!

  20. Young Sally says:

    I was there 82-86…..the first fall was particularly awful…good fodder for a horror film or AMC series. One prank at the time was to wait until a friend was walking along the well-treed path toward Jones and then suddenly make a ton of noise….one can imagine the unfortunate consequences.

  21. Pingback: The Birds, circa late ’70s | Rice History Corner

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