Twyla Bella and her mother Gail Lotenberg
balancing on their bums.
Photo by Alejandro Frid.
My friend Twyla
Bella is 6 years old. She lives on
Bowen Island and I’ve known her parents
for years. Her Mother, Gail Lotenberg, is creator
and choreographerer of a dance production, Experiments.
A group of behavioural ecologists and I have been working
with her to help guide the production by responding
honestly as scientists to what we saw and felt
happening around us.
to express the essence
of scientific discovery in that
medium, and it was a tall order.
Gail and ecologist
Mark Winston described
the project early in development
in their Story about Experiments, and
Gail spoke about it near the end. She interviewed
the scientists early in the project, on camera. That
helped her design, choreograph, and direct the
production and is helping the to dancers
dance in it.
our conversations with Gail,
and our attendance at key practice
sessions also helped scientists real-
ize what we were contributing to
the effort. Last week Gail sent
me a clip of her interview
With clips of our
voices and filmy video images
fading in and out, each placed to inform
and structure the music and dance, I think Gail
accomplished something really quite wonderful with
Experiments. I encourage you to see it in the flesh.
In the clip she sent me, I told a story about
hummingbirds getting warm
in the morning.
According to Gail,
Twyla loves that story and
watches it again and again. What
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 they chose them
as their animal to study in school.
How cool is that? Great
choice, girls! Hummingbirds
rock. You’ll never get
tired of them.
happy you liked
that story that I want to
tell you another one.
to keep warm when it’s drizzling
and blowing? No sun. Dark sky. Wet. Cold.
Some people call it “miserable” weather
and they don’t like it at all.
But what about
the hummingbirds? They’re
little and they live here too.
What do they do when it’s
I know what you
do in weather like that. You go
out in it, do what you do to keep warm
enough, and have a good time. Wasn’t
your very first paddle in your own
kayak in a storm?
What would a hummingbird do?
they do is fluff up their
feathers to make thick feathery
coats and snuggle up in them, just
like you do. And just like you, the
colder it gets the more they do it.
Here is a picture
that tells that story.
blue side of the picture
when it’s cold, the hummingbird is
all fluffed up like a ball, just like you would be.
She also pulled her head down between her
shoulders and you do that too. It
helps keep both of you warm.
Over on the red
side when it was warm,
even a few minutes later, she
didn’t need any of that and
slimmed back down
If it’s too cold,
just fluffing up won’t keep
her warm enough and she needs to
eat more food. She can’t go in for hot
chocolate like you can, but you probably
know that the colder it is, the more
she comes to your feeder.
Feeders are one
like about people. Gardens
can be pretty good for them
too. Especially if they can
get a good one.
It’s tough to
stay warm in the cold if you’re a
hummingbird. But they get lots of practice,
they’re pretty good at doing it, and most
of the time they do just fine.
Trinity Alps Wilderness Area, California.
Photo by Lee Gass.
Here is the story
I want to tell you.
It was a cold,
rainy day at Grizzly Lake,
where we studied hummingbirds
in the summer every year. For days in
a row it had rained all the time and all
was wet and drippy.
Every morning, we
counted flowers and hummingbirds
in the meadows, measured flower nectar,
and recorded where hummingbirds went
and what they did. If was raining,
we did all that in the rain.
On the day
I want to tell uou about,
I visited a steep meadow of
Indian paintbrush that we
called The Notch.
I headed slowly
across the slope toward the
bottom of The Notch, which lay beyond
a small steep forest, not far above
the lake and ringed by low
shrubs and bushes.
I was careful
to keep my balance, not
to slip, trip, and slide into the lake.
I was slow and quiet enough to hear
what was happening all
It was a
Just before I
got to the bottom of The
Notch, I stopped just below the bottom
of the last tree, right where I always stopped.
I was the first place I could see the whole
meadow without disturbing
That rainy morning,
hummingbirds weren’t doing
anything in The Notch. They weren’t
even there. After a long time, one hummingbird
fed briefly at the top of the meadow, then
flew away and I didn’t
see it again.
I had never seen anything like it.
I was about to
move on when I saw some-
thing so incredible I couldn’t
Only inches from
my boot and no higher off the
ground than the top of my laces,
under some leaves on a twig
and out of the rain, was an
adult female rufous
She was like
the bird on the cold
side of that picture but
She was breathing
slowly for a hummingbird. On
my hands and knees looked up close,
I could tell she was breathing, but
slower than hummingbirds
My breath must
have warmed her up at
least a bit. But she didn’t budge, twitch,
or even look at me!
I’d never heard of
such a thing! Her eyes were closed,
her bill pointed up like they do when
they sleep, and she was sleeping!
taking a nap under
an awning in the rain. Don’t they
sleep at night like us? I backed off slowly,
sat under a closeby tree, and kept close
watch with binoculars for an
hour and nothing
She didn’t move.
Then her bill
twitched once, barely enough
to notice, then twitched again and
didn’t do any more twitching
for a while.
Her next twitch
was like before, but she
kept on twitching, bigger and
bigger twitches until she stopped,
opened her eyes for the first time,
looked around a few times,
warmed up her wings
for a while.
Holding tight to
the twig she’d been napping
on to keep from really flying, she flew
there under the awning, without
moving for a while.
was warmed up and ready to go,
she let go =of the twig and flew out into
The Notch to feed.
If you think
that was amazing, wait till you
hear the rest of the story.
She visited 30 or 40
or 50 flowers in a row, hovering
briefly at each to lick nectar and flitting
quickly from flower to flower. What amazed
me so much is that she flew back to exactly
the same twig, under the same leaves,
out of the rain, pooped, and went
right back to sleep again!
Naps after lunch are good on rainy days!
After our own
lunch, later that day, six
scientists sat in a circle with their
feet together, in the same mountains
and in the same rainstorm,
A tarp stretched
tightly just above our heads
and kept us dry, and all the way up to
our necks if we wanted, a many-coloured
down quilt kept us warm – – 6 scientists’
sleeping bags zipped into
a giant circle.
Nestled in our
nest, we were warm, cozy,
laying back, and easing
ourselves through the
Some of us
wrote, some read, and some just
sat there imagining things with our eyes
open, off in worlds of our own.
everyone but me fell into
what we called ‘rain sleep’. Their
eyes closed, their breating slowed and
deepened. I watched, listenened, and
imagined all sorts of things as one
by one they fell away.
water dripping from trees.
Nappers breathing. My own breath.
Mist tickling the tarp like a brush. Drops
draining down. Distant new waterfalls
leaped down cliffs to the lake.
naps in rain – – especially the
female I had watched that morning.
Then I heard a hummingbird
hovering just outside the tarp.
I couldn’t see
it, but after a second or two
the bird ducked under the tarp, perched
on a clothesline next to somebody’s
socks and looked me right
in the eye.
This immature male
rufous hummingbird had
hatched out of an egg less than 6
weeks before, way up north. Maybe
as far north as Alaska. Now, in a
rainstorm on a mountain on his
first trip to Mexico, he shared
tarp with 6 scientists.
He seemed more
curious than afraid. He didn’t
look too happy, either. He was close
enough to touch but I didn’t move a muscle.
I hardly blinked my eyes! We sat and
watched each other.
He looked at
everything else too. But he really
kept an eye on me and I kept my eye on him.
I knew that he knew that I was awake, alert,
and watching him. After a few minutes of
us watching each other like that, what
he did next amazed me.
As if they were flowers in a
field of sleeping scientists, he flew
to three different places under the tarp,
hovered for a moment in front of each
of them, one after the other, and
close enough to the red, sun-
burned nose of a sleeping scientist
to lick it, hung there briefly in the air,
and moved on to the bright red
triangle on a yellow box
visited the red shoelaces
on a pair of mountain boots, tied neatly
in bows like big red flowers, then
returned to the clothesline
He perched there
long enough to look me in the eye
again, then flew back out into
They were amazed to learn
what they had missed!
If you keep
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 lab
We call hurricanes,
tornados, record high and low
temperatures, and flooding rains extreme
weather events , and we usually think of them
in relation to human beings. 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. Males
south through mountains
in long leaps, stopping in subalpine
meadows. Several times along the way
they tank up on sugar, gaining up to 40%
of their body weight in fat before
they move on.
How long it takes
to get to Mexico depends on
how long it takes to gain that much fat.
That depends on how many flowers there are,
how much nectar the flowers produce, how
many other hummingbirds need the same
nectar, and how good individuals
are at gaining, defending,
and using territories.
If it’s a cold day,
the birds need more food.
Flowers accumulate nectar slower
then, so they need to visit even
even more flowers to make
any fat at all.
They fly more,
perch less, spend more
energy, and have less of it
left to make fat with
when it’s cold.
who ran into a cyclonic storm
in northern California might consider
them extreme weather events. We sure did,
and we were prepared for it. The humming-
birds were prepared for them too.
We also had to be ready
for violent afternoon thunderstorms,
which were always exciting. Most exciting
of all was that we were so close to the centre
of the action in Grizzly Lake cirque. Flashes of
lightning and claps of thunder happened
at exactly the same time to our eyes
and ears, only a few hundred
meters above us.
In 1980, Ken
Lertzman and I publish-
ed a paper about a storm like
that. We had been mapping the
numbers of territories and flowers
in several Grizzly Lake meadows
for several years, one of which
was The Notch.
was “The Falls”,
over on the other side
of Grizzly Falls.
On the morning
of the thunder and hailstorm,
The Falls had 17 territories. After it,
there hardly flowers left. Seventeen migrating
hummingbirds were either dead, which is
unlikely, or needed to squeeze into a
nectar economy that was
You can read that
paper in the Canadian Journal of
Zoology: Capricious mountain weather: a
driving variable in hummingbird
the story about the
hummingbird under the
tarp in the very last sentences
of a serious scientific
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 the flower damage we wrote
about. Sometimes these storms are
brief and sometimes they keep
us under the tarp in
long rain sleep.
article 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. When I edited the story in October 2021 I realized that Twyla Bella is much older now than she was when I wrote it for her. This time, I told the story as I would have told it to an adult.
Edited October 2021