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Kids, Hummingbirds, and the RCMP: Experiments Seven

Lee Gass telling a story about kids, hummingbirds and the RCMP.  As you can see, he is a very serious man.  Photo and photo editing by David Shackleton.

A Story for Twyla Bella let me give something back to a girl who loves hummingbirds.  It also generated comments and questions about hummingbird behaviour and ecology, leading to me to comment on the comments.  All of that, as well as the Experiments premiere, triggered an avalanche of hummingbird memories.  I don’t know when or how or whether it will stop, or even why it should. 

What I want to tell you here is not as much about hummingbirds as about kids learning about hummingbirds, and learning about themselves at the same time. More than that, it is about adults helping kids learn.  In particular, it is about a conversation I had about all this with an RCMP constable on Galiano Island.

For years, JoAn Maurer and I had talked about doing something with hummingbirds in elementary schools.  She was “on retreat” at the time, staying in a cabin, laying back, thinking about things, and writing.  One thing she thought about was our hummingbird idea, and she decided it was time for us to do it.  What we came up with was that hummingbirds were pretty much “it” for a whole elementary school for 6 weeks.   That’s what they studied, and that's pretty much all they studied.

Exactly what did they study, you ask?  You name it.

Hummingbird biology, ecology, mythology, and behaviour, and what they have to do with human beings.  Geography, from local to global.  Human psychology, oral history and anthropology.  Weather and climate.  They went on field trips. Professional artists used hummingbird motifs to organize workshops on painting and silkscreening techniques.  Professional writers did the same with poetry and prose. They danced hummingbird dances, sang hummingbird songs, and listened to and told hummingbird stories.  They did scientific research and gave talks.  They learned fast, learned deep, and were proud of themselves.

Using feeders just outside their classrooms, kids measured how fast food disappeared from the feeders, and related that to the weather and the number of  hummingbirds they thought might be visiting. They tied coloured flags to feeders and moved them around to see how they remember things. They varied the concentration of food in feeders to see what hummingbirds prefer.  I don’t remember all they did, but they did a lot.

In one activity, they measured the distance from a feeder to the edge of the woods, then timed how long it took hummingbirds to fly it, allowing them to estimate hummingbird flight speed.  With enough care, enough data, enough coordination of effort, and enough practice with 5th grade math, a school full of kids can make a pretty good estimate. And with enough help graphing and presenting things, everyone can understand it.   After we completed that, an airline pilot came in to talk about how things fly and how it feels to fly them. 

At the very beginning of our experiment, when rufous hummingbirds were just beginning to arrive back on Galiano Island after a winter in Mexico, people all over the island reported hummingbird sightings to Hummingbird Central at the school.  Excited students plotted new arrivals on a map, and everyone talked about what was happening. 

It was breaking news at the beginning, and it stayed that way throughout the project.  At the very end, after the grand show-and-tell in the auditorium, I gave an illustrated talk on my hummingbird research for anyone on the island who wanted to come.  We had a lot to thank them for.

But back in the planning stage, we thought of an exciting possibility that never came to fruition.  I think of it now as a magnificent failure, and I guess I want to brag about it a bit.

Our reasoning went something like the following.

First, we knew that the kids would be estimating hummingbird flight speed, and we wanted them to compare those values with anything else they could imagine.  Cars, planes, horses, athletes, satellites, fishboats, ships, salmon, sunlight, earthworms, and sound. Other birds.  Whatever.   The data are all over the place, and pretty easy to find.  Kids can measure their own sowbugs and earthworms, and in some ways they can measure themselves.

We also knew that before they could compare speeds, all the different measurements would have to be in the same units, and of course they're not.  Speed is speed, and that's simple.  But when kids clock hummingbirds in meters per second and cops clock cars in kilometers per hour, how are they going to compare them?  Ships at sea are measured in knots. How do you measure tree growth, or earthworm-crawling?  What about continental drift, or electricity?  

It takes some careful thinking to work out what to do in which grades, and things like that.  To fully experience the flight speed scenario takes 5th grade math.  Some other scenario might take only knowing how to count and make marks on blackboards.  Primary kids usually don't write sonnets, but 7th graders might not sing hummingbird songs, either!  There's no lack of good things to do.

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