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Lee’s Stories

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posted on November 20, 2010 | Science and Nature
A Story for Twyla Bella

Twyla Bella and her mother Gail Lotenberg
balancing on their bums.
Photo by Alejandro Frid.


 My friend
Twyla Bella is 6 years
old, lives on Bowen Island, and
I’ve known her parents for years.
Mother, Gail Lotenberg, is choreograph-
er of
Experiments, a dance production a
group of behavioural ecologists and I
have been working with her to help
the production
expressing the
essence of scientific

With ecologist
Mark Winston, she wrote a

Story about Experiments early in
development and
Gail speaks about the
near the end. 
Gail interviewed
scientists on the team early in the project, on
camera, and that helped her design, choreo-
graph, and direct the production and is
helping the dancers dance in it.  L
sent me a video clip of her
interview with me. 

With clips
of our voices and projected
video in places to inform and structure
the dancing
I think Gail accomplished some-
thing really quite wonderful with Experiments
and I encourage you to see it in the flesh.
the clip she sent me I told a story about
getting warm
in the morning.

According to Gail,
Twyla loves that story and
watches it again and again. 
great news it is that stories can play im-
portant roles in people’s lives!
Even better
news is that she and her friend Sarra love
hummingbirds so much that they chose
them as the animal they would study
in school. 
How cool is that?  Great
choice, girls!  Hummingbirds
rock.  You’ll never get
tired of them.

I’m so
happy you liked
that story that I want
tell you another one. 


What do
hummingbirds do to keep
warm when it drizzles and blows,
there’s no sun and it’s cold outside and
You know what you do in
Your Dad told me of your first
paddle in your first very own kayak in
a storm.
What do hummingbirds do?
One thing they do is fluff up their
like thick feathery
and snuggle up
in them.


On the
blue side of the picture it is
cold the hummingbird is all fluffed up and
pulling her head down between her shoulders to
keep warm
But on the red side later when it was
warm, she didn’t need to. 
Fluffing up like that
helps cold hummingbirds stay warm, like
your fluffy coat keeps you warm
when it is cold outside.

When it’s really
cold outside,
fluffing up
won’t keep them warm enough

and they have to eat more food, but
flowers make less nectar in the cold,

so it’s tough to stay warm in the
if you’re a hummingbird.
They’re good at it, though,
and most of the time
they do just fine.


Grizzly Lake,
Trinity Alps Wilderness Area, California.
Photo by Lee Gass.

It was a cold,
rainy day at Grizzly Lake
where we studied hummingbirds
every summer.  It rained without stopping
for days in a row it was cold, and everything
was wet and drippy. 
We went into the meadows
every morning
to count flowers count hummingbirds,
see what they do, and measure flower nectar. T
hat day
we did it in the rain. 
I went to a steep meadow of Indian
we called The Notch, beyond a small steep
above the lake. 
I moved carefully across the
slope toward The Notch not to slip, trip, or fall
in the rain and slide to the lake,
quietly enough to appreciate
what was happening
all around me.

It was magical.

Just before I
got to the bottom of The
Notch I stopped near the bottom of
the last tree, by some low shrubs growing
around the bottom of it,
and looked out into the
meadow, where I could see
all of it without disturbing
That morning hummingbirds weren’t
doing anything in The Notch.  They weren’t even there.
Nothing was happening in The Notch. 
After a
long time, one hummingbird fed briefly
at the top of the meadow, then
flew away and I didn’t
see it again.

What was going on in The Notch?
I’d never seen anything like it.

I was about to
walk away again when
I saw something incredible!
couldn’t believe
it! Only inches from
my boot and only as high as the top of my
boot, perched on a twig on a low shrub,
an awning of leaves and out of the rain, was
an adult female rufous hummingbird!
When she didn’t fly away, I realized
she’d been there since
before I came.

She looked
like the hummingbird

on the cold side of the picture
but way fluffier. 
She was breathing
slowly for a hummingbird.  When I got on
my hands and knees and looked at her up close,
where my breath must have warmed her up a bit,
he didn’t budge, twitch, or even look at me!
Who ever heard of such a thing? Her
eyes were closed, her bill was
up, like they do, and
she was sleeping!

hummingbird was
taking a nap under an awning
in the rain. 
Who has ever heard of
hummingbirds taking naps?
Don’t they
sleep at night like us? Don’t they have to
feed all day? 
I backed off slowly, sat
under another tree, and kept close
watch with binoculars
for an
hour and nothing

 She twitched her
bill once, barely enough to
notice, then twitched it again and
didn’t do any more twitching for a while.
The next twitch was like before but she kept
twitching this time
bigger and bigger twitches
each time she twitched
until she stopped, opened
eyes, looked around a few times, hummed her
holding on to the twig she’d been napping
on to warm everything up and get it going
before she went,
and flew out into
The Notch to feed. 

That amazed me!

if you think
that was amazing,
wait till you hear the rest of it.
She hovered for a moment at 30 or 40
or 50 or more flowers in a row, licking nectar,
flitting as fast as she could flit from flower to flower,
then, and this is amazingly wonderful, she flew right
to the same twig on the same shrub under the
same awning of leaves and out of the rain,
pooped, and went right back
to sleep again!

Naps after lunch are good on rainy days!

After our
own lunch the same day,
same mountains, same storm,
six scientists sat in a circle, feet together,
at the base of a big rock, tarp stretched tightly,
barely above their heads but keeping us dry. We
sat on mattresses, leaned back against boots, extra
clothing, backpacks and rocks and enjoyed ourselves.
To our necks if we wanted, a many-coloured down
quilt kept us warm –  6 sleeping bags zipped
into a circle. 
We were in our nest,
warm, cozy, doing what we
wanted to do. 

Some of us wrote,
some read. Some just sat
there, imagining things with
our eyes open, off in worlds of our
Slowly, one after another, we
drifted off to sleep (we called it ‘rain
sleep’) until only one was still awake.
I sat there and watched, sat there
and listened, and
sat there
all sorts
of things.

Sounds. Sounds.
Water drips from trees.
Sleeping scientists breathe.
Mist tickles tarp like a brush.
New waterfalls in distance.
My breath breathing.

On a quiet
afternoon in wilderness,
under a tarp in the rain, wet socks
drying inches from our faces and everyone
asleep but me, I wondered  hummingbirds
napping in daytime in rain. W
hile I thought
about the hummingbird in the bush, I
heard a hummingbird hovering
just outside the tarp in the
It hovered there,
then came in and
perched next to
the of socks. 

It was a wet, bedraggled,
immature male rufous hummingbird
less than 6 weeks old, migrating to Mexico
in a rainstorm
from somewhere up north, maybe
as far as Alaska.  He didn’t seem at all afraid but
didn’t look happy either. He was clearly wet
and cold and h
e was close enough to touch
but I didn’t move a muscle. 
I hardly
blinked my eyes!  
I watched the
hummingbird and he
watched me. 

He looked at everything
under the tarp and looked out in rain.
and after a few minutes of doing this
Then he did something amazing.

As if he thought
they were flowers in a field
of sleeping scientists, he
flew to three
different things under the tarp all different,
all the same, hovered briefly in front of each,
one after the other, and moved on.
He hovered
near enough
to the red, sunburned nose of
a sleeping scientist
to lick it if he wanted,
hung there momentarily investigating,
deciding what to do,
and moved to
the bright red triangle on a
yellow box of Triscuits,
hovered, and

on mountain
boots, neatly tied in
bows like big red flowers,
perched on the clothesline
again just long enough to
look me in the eye, and flew
back into the weather.

first time
I told that story
was later the same
day, under the tarp in
the rainstorm, after the
scientists were up
from their

They were amazed to learn what they missed!

If you keep
studying hummingbirds
you’ll have stories like that of your own
to tell.  Lots and lots of them.

The ‘cold – hot’
graph of one adult female rufous
hummingbird at three different temper-
atures is based Bob Purdy’s Zoology Honours
Thesis study in 1975, and was part of a poster
in my exhibition at the Scotiabank Dance
Centre.  That graph also illustrates
Graphing in Science and

Bob’s was the very first
experimental study in my laboratory.

weather events
are hurri-
canes, tornados, record high and low
temperatures, or flooding rains, and we
usually think of them in relation to human
Think of a 6-week-old male rufous
hummingbird migrating to Mexico. 
If they’re
lucky, smart, and female, rufous might
make 12 or 13 round trips before
they die, and males

They migrate
south through mountains
in long leaps, stopping in subalpine
meadows.  Several times along the way
tank up on sugar,
gain up to 40% of
their body weight in fat each
time and move on.

How long it takes
to get to Mexico depends on
how long it takes to gain that much fat.
That depends on things like how many flowers
there are, how much nectar they produce, how
many other birds need the same nectar, and
how effective
that hummingbird is
at gaining and defending a
feeding territory. 

If it’s cold
and cloudy, hummingbirds are
cold and need more food, but flowers produce
nectar slower, each flower accumulates less nectar,
and birds must visit more flowers to get the same amount
of nectar
fly more, perch less, spend more energy, need
even more nectar to fuel more flying, have less to
make fat with, have to stay longer in the
meadow to gain enough fat, etc.

A migrating
hummingbird who ran
into an early season cyclonic storm
in northern California might think of it as
an extreme weather event. 
We sure did and we
were prepared for it.  H
ummingbirds was prepared
for it too.   They knew when to take naps.
We were
also ready for violent afternoon thunderstorms,
which were always exciting.  M
ost exciting, because
we were so close to the centre of the action in
Grizzly Lake cirque,
the flash of lightning
and the clap of thunder happened
at exactly the same time
a few hundred meters
above us. 

In 1980, Ken
and I publish-
ed a paper about a storm like
that.  We had been monitoring the
numbers of hummingbirds and flowers
in several Grizzly Lake meadows for sev-
eral years, one of which was “The Notch”.
Another was “The Falls”, over on the
other side of Grizzly Falls on
the eastern slope of
the cirque. 

the morning of
that thunderstorm, that
meadow supported 17 humming-
bird territories.  After the thunderstorm
there was hardly anything left of any of the
flowers and that many migrating humming-
birds were either dead, which is unlikely,
or needed to squeeze into a local
nectar economy that was
already tight. 

You can read that
paper in the Canadian Journal of
Capricious mountain weather: a
driving variable in hummingbird
territorial dynamics

We told
the story about the
hummingbird under the
tarp in the very last sentences
of a serious scientific

Rain Sleep
I explained in Frank Spear
and the Pea Seeds that California has
a Mediterranean climate, with a long hot dry
summer and a long cool wet winter.  Grizzly Lake
is in that climate zone, but at 7,000 feet altitude
it gets violent afternoon thunderstorms like the
one that caused flower damage we wrote
about.  Sometimes these storms are
brief and sometimes they keep
us under the tarp in
long rain sleep.


A journal
Raul Suarez
and I published, Hummingbird
foraging and the relation between bio-
energetics and behaviour
, reviews what it
is like, energetically, for hummingbirds
to live these kinds of lives in those
kinds of environments.

For another story
about rainstorms and raindrops,
see Patrick Little’s study of raindrop size
in relation to the sizes of rainstorms in

Architects of their Own Education.

On the general
topic of the power of stories to
convey important content, listen to my
talk Stories about Stories.

First published in the Vancouver Observer.

Edited January 2019


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