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 had
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. Everything they
studied was in relation
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
you think are visiting.
(How could you tell?)
Tie coloured flags
to feeders. Move them around
to see how hummingbirds
(How could you tell?)
Vary the sugar
concentration of nectar
in feeders to see what the
(How could you tell?)
pilot who lived
on the island and commuted
to New York City or somewhere
for work talked about how anything
flies. Not just hummingbirds but anything.
He made sure they already knew he knew
they knew a lot about hummingbirds,
and invited them to talk
And he gave them a sense of
how it feels to fly a
they did and I wasn’t even there
for most of it. But they did a lot.
They didn’t do anything else.
In one activity,
they measured distances
from feeders outside their windows
to the edge of the forest, timed how long it
took hummingbirds to fly those distances,
and estimated hummingbird flight
speed from those two numbers.
With enough care,
enough data, enough coordination
of effort, enough practice and 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 little
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 Headquarters” at the school
by phone. Excited students plotted new
sightings 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
when they work together!
It was amazing.
here’s the thing about the RCMP.
Maybe it’s a thing about bureaucracies in
general. I’m not sure. But early in the planning
stage, when we were imagining things to do, we
thought of an interesting possibility that never
came to be. I think of it as a magnificent
failure and I want to brag and
whine about it a bit.
like the this.
The kids would
be estimating hummingbird
flight speeds, and we wanted them
to compare them with any other speeds
they could think of. Birds. Planes.
Worms. Slugs sliding on
sidewalks of slime.
salmon, and cars. Ships, horses,
and rocket ships. Satellites.
Anything that moved.
The data are
everywhere and easy to find.
Kids can measure their own worm, sowbug,
and hummingbird speeds, and learn
to estimate their own.
We also knew,
and this is essential to the story,
that for kids to compare speeds, those
speeds must 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? How do you
measure tree growth or earthworm or
sowbug crawling? Continental
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 and 7th
graders won’t sing hummingbird songs
or dance hummingbird dances . But every-
one loves hummingbirds and wants to know
more about them. There is no lack of good
things for everyone in a school to do
on that theme. As an island
community, we did
a lot of them.
While we knew
speed comparisons would
fascinate kids, we also knew that
for kids, the most interesting thing
to compare to a hummingbird is a
kid. What if they could compare
their own speeds to those
foot, flat out, doing their best
to beat the hummingbirds. To do
that with tape measures and watches
like they did with humming birds would
be possible in principle but too much
work for whole schools of kids.
Too many kids,
too many numbers, and too
many ways to make mistakes.
Too much work and not nearly
enough fun. It might be a
good idea, but it could
But if kids didn’t
have to measure speed and
just perform, it would avoid the
worst of those problems with no loss
at all in what they learned. And if they
didn’t have to divide all those numbers
by each other they could deal with
the rest of the operations.
If the RCMP
constable came to the school
and clocked them with his radar,
we thought, kids would get good data
quickly and accurately. If we organized
and practiced The Hummingbird Races:
An Athletic Event For the Ages
well ahead of time, he might be
able to clock everyone.
have fun, get exercise, and
learn about nature, themselves,
math, and policing while we clocked
every kid in the school. All we
needed was the constable.
There might be health
risks, RCMP policies might prevent
it, or there might be other barriers we
hadn’t thought of. We didn’t know or care
about that at that stage, though, because
as something to do with a school full
of kids, it was dynamite.
To fully appreciate
what 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
he had a big decision to
make and it is big background,
really, because he had a big
PR problem and it wasn’t
getting any better.
From the moment he
arrived on the island, not long
before the day I’ll be telling you about,
he’d been cracking down hard on speeders.
Everyone was getting tickets, the
island was a crime scene, and
nobody liked it.
What irked them
most, I think, was not that they
were getting caught and paying the
price for it. 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 breaking and
them, he was rude, crude, and
downright insulting about it. 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 and made them
said he frightened their
children. With that in mind,
I dropped a bombshell when
I talked with the man.
I said that
if he clocked kids at the
school, it would switch him from a
villain to a hero in the kids’ eyes. They
would wave to him as he drove by, and tell
anyone who would listen what wonderful
things he had done with them. They
would never allow their parents
to exceed the speed limit.
His ticketing rates
would plummet and he could
explain why. His superiors would see it
as evidence of a knack for public relations
and community building. They would
promote him and encourage him to
innovate in any way he could
think of. He would be
listened carefully and asked
excellent questions. Clearly, he under-
stood everything I said. When I reminded him
that while he clocked cars in kilometers per hour
and his US colleagues clocked them in miles per
hour with the same equipment, kids clock
hummingbirds in meters per
second, he got excited.
“If they could
do the math, they could
compare anything!”, he
exclaimed, and that was
exactly the point.
Kids being kids,
we chuckled, they’d probably
want to compare hummingbirds to
hippopotomi. He was no dummy. He was
like Archimedes in the Bathtub to see
that what we were discussing
was big, important,
His body 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 to experience – – he became
a person and not just
forward in his chair, listened
carefully, and offered ideas. We engaged
deeply in the conversation and I thought he
would go for it. At least, I hoped, we
would learn whether his super-
iors would let him do it.
Then, over just
a few seconds, he sat back up
in his chair and stiffened. His face,
eyes, shoulders, and voice became hard
again. He crossed his arms and told
me he didn’t want to talk about
He turned me
down flat and I never knew
why. I had more or less promised
him he’d be a hero to the kids and I think
he believed me. They’d give him the benefit
of the doubt when he ticketed people and
train adults to get fewer tickets. His
ratings would improve and he
might get promoted. But
he didn’t want to talk
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 May 2021