want to tell you here
is not as much about humming-
birds as about kids learning about
hummingbirds, and learning about
themselves and other things at the same
time. It is also about adults helping
kids learn. In particular, it is about
a conversation I had about all this
with an RCMP constable on
First some background.
JoAn Maurer and I
imagined doing something with
hummingbirds in elementary schools. She
was on retreat at the time, in a tiny cabin and
laying back, thinking about things and writing.
She remembered our hummingbird idea
and thought it was a good time
to make it happen.
happened was that
hummingbirds were pretty
much ‘it’ for a whole elementary school
for 6 weeks and everything they
studied was related to
what did they study,
you ask? You name it. They studied
hummingbird feeding behaviour, metabolism,
flight, ecology, social interaction, pollination, and
other things biological, and took field trips. Local and
global geography. Dependence on weather, climate, and
plant communities. Human-hummingbird interactions.
Hummingbirds in different cultures. Anthropology. Oral
history. Mythology, , They used hummingbird motifs in
professional artists’ and writers’ workshops, listened
to and told hummingbird stories, sang humming-
bird songs, danced hummingbird dances,
did scientific research and were
proud of themselves.
feeders outside classrooms
and relate it to weather and
number of hummingbirds
they think are visiting.
(How can you tell?)
flags to feeders. Move
them around to see how the
birds remember places.
(How can you tell?)
concentration of nectar
in feeders to see what the birds like.
(How can you tell?)
pilot who lived
on the island and commuted
to New York City or somewhere
talked about how anything flies (and he
let them count the ways). Not just hummingbirds,
which he knew they already knew about, (and he
made sure they knew that), but anything.
And he gave them a sense of
how it feels to fly a
remember what all
they did and I wasn’t even there
for most of it. But they
did a lot.
from feeders outside their
classrooms to the edge of the forest,
timed how long it took hummingbirds to fly
those distances, then estimated hummingbird
flight speed from those two numbers. With enough
care, enough data, enough coordination of effort, and
enough practice with 5th grade math, a school full of
kids, operating as a team, can make a good estimate.
With enough help graphing and presenting things,
everyone in a school like that can understand
everything important about it on one
level or another, even the
our experiment, when rufous
hummingbirds were just beginning
to arrive back on Galiano to breed after
wintering in Mexico, people all over the
island reported hummingbird sightings
to Hummingbird Central at the school
by phone, excited students plotted new
arrivals with coloured pins on a map
and discussed what hummingbirds
were doing, right then, all over
the island and the region
that were breaking
news at the start and stayed
breaking news for the duration.
At the very end, after the grand show
and tell by the kids and my illustrated
talk on my hummingbird research
for everyone on the island,
we had a lot to thank
what we learned
about what schools and
communities can accomplish
here’s the thing about the RCMP.
Maybe it’s a thing about bureaucracies, but
way early in the planning stages when we were imagining
new possibilities, we thought of an exciting one that never
happened. I like to think of it as a magnificent
failure and want to brag about it a bit.
Our reasoning was something
like the following.
kids would be
flight speed and wanted them to
compare those speeds with any other
speeds they could think of. Birds. Planes.
Earthworms. Sound. Light. Fishboats.
Runners. Salmon. Cars. Planes.
Ships. Horses. Satellites.
Anything that moves.
Data are everywhere and easy to find.
Kids can measure sowbug and earthworm speeds.
In some ways they can measure their own speeds.
We also knew,
and this is essential to the story,
that for kids to compare speeds, the speeds
have to be in the same units and of course they’re
not. Speed is speed and that’s simple. Every little
kid knows that. But when kids clock hummingbirds
in meters per second and cops clock cars in kilometers
per hour, how can kids compare them? Ships at
sea are measured in knots, how do you measure
tree growth or earthworm or sowbug
crawling? continental drift?
Those are non-
trivial issues for most
adults. We have to think about
how to make the conversions, and it
took careful thinking to work out what we
could do in what grades with the kids. To fully
experience the flight speed scenario, for example,
requires 5th grade math, but some tasks
took only counting, measuring, and
making marks on paper or
don’t write sonnets.
7th graders usually don’t
dance hummingbird dances
or sing hummingbird songs, but
everyone loves hummingbirds
and wants to know more about
them. There is no lack of good
things for everyone to do.
We did a lot of them as
an entire integrated
while we knew
speed comparisons would
fascinate all kids, we also knew
that for kids, the most interesting
thing to compare to a hummingbird
would be a kid. Hopefully, each kid
could compare his or herself to
expanded and we
foot, flat out, doing their best
to beat the hummingbirds. To do
that with tape measures and stopwatches,
like they did with hummingbirds would be
possible but ridiculous for anyone to try. Too
many kids, too many numbers, too many
kinds of data, far too much arithmetic
and too many ways to make
mistakes. Too much work
and not enough fun.
Maybe a good
idea but it
avoid the worst of
that problem if kids didn’t
need to measure speed and just
perform, and if they didn’t have to
divide all those numbers by each other,
they could handle the rest. If the RCMP
constable came to the school and clocked
them with his radar, kids would get good
data quickly and accurately. We guessed
maybe, if we organized and practiced
The Hummingbird Races, An
Athletic Event For the Ages
well ahead of time, he could
clock students quickly
enough to clock
have fun, get exercise,
and learn about nature, themselves,
math and policing while we clocked every
kid in the school and all we needed was the
constable. Maybe there were health risks,
RCMP policies might prevent it, or there
might be other barriers that we hadn’t
thought of. We didn’t know or care about
that then because as something to do
with a school full of kids and wild
hummingbirds, the idea
happened when I talked
with the constable about this, you
need a little background on the decision
the poor fellow was about to make. You need
some local colour. I should say big background
and big decision, really, because he had a big PR
problem and it wasn’t getting better. From the
moment he arrived on the island, not long
before the day I’ll be telling you about,
he came down hard on speeders,
everyone was getting tickets,
the island was a crime
scene, and nobody
bothered them most,
I think, was not that they were
getting caught and paying fines for
what they did. It was that the cop made such
a Federal Offense of it when he stopped them for
speeding. To hear them tell it (adults, I mean – kids
had their own stories about it), it wasn’t just that he was
tough. After all, he was a man on a mission, his mission
was reasonable, and they understood the law they were
violating and respected it. But according to them, he
was downright insulting and rude about it when he
stopped them. Instead of just giving them tickets,
telling them the jig was up and they’d better
not get caught again, as a stern but loving
parent might do, he rubbed it in. He
read them the riot act, made them feel
guilty, and some parents said
he frightened their children.
in mind, I dropped
a bombshell when I talked
with the man. I said clocking kids
at the school could turn him from a
villain into a hero in kids’ eyes. They
would wave to him as he drove by,
tell everyone who would listen what
he had done for them, and never
allow their parents, as long as
they lived at home, to exceed
the limit. Ticketing rates
would interpret the decrease
as evidence of a knack for public relations
and community building and ultimately,
he was willing to imagine for a few minutes,
they would promote him and encourage him
to innovate in whatever other ways
he could think of. He would
be a leader.
listened carefully and
asked excellent questions, and
clearly understood everything I said.
When I reminded him that he clocks cars
in kilometers per hour and his US colleagues
clock them in miles per hour using the same
equipment but kids clock hummingbirds in
meters per second he got excited. ‘If they
can do the math’, he exclaimed, ‘they
can compare anything!’ That
was exactly the point.
Kids being kids,
we chuckled, they’d probably
want to compare hummingbirds to
hippopotomi and if they could do the math
they could compare anything that moved.
The guy was no dummy, and it hit him
like Archimedes in the Bathtub that
what we were talking about was
big, important, and do-
language shifted, his
shoulders, eyes and face softened,
his voice took on a warm and friendly
tone and he came alive in a special way
that teachers live for – he became a person. He
leaned forward in his chair, listened carefully,
offered ideas, we were deep in conversation
and I thought he would go for it. At least,
I thought, we would learn whether
his superiors would let
him do it.
Then, over a few seconds, he sat back up
in his chair, face, eyes, shoulders, and voice
hard again, crossed his arms, and said he
didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
turned me down
and I never found out why.
I had more or less promised him
he’d be a hero and I think he believed me.
Rather than avoiding him on the street they’d
greet him with respect and gratitude, give him
the benefit of the doubt when he ticketed their
friends, get fewer tickets themselves and be
less resentful when they did, his ratings
would improve and he might even
get promoted, but he didn’t
want to talk about it.
a hoot, a crying shame,
a pity, and a missed opportunity?
From some of the things we’ve seen from
the RCMP in recent years, I guess it isn’t all that
surprising. Maybe it would work with a different
community, a different constable or a different
RCMP. Maybe it would take people with more
wild ideas about building communities.
I don’t know, but our wild idea to
clock kids on Galiano Island
sure didn’t fly.
It didn’t even get off the ground.
Photo by David Shackleton.
Edited January 2019