Friday, February 28, 2020

Food Web Wonders

The Old Testament books of Psalms and Job supply many descriptive references on wonders of the inanimate and animate physical creation. Psalm 8 speaks of the majesty of the Lord who established his glory above the heavens, and the glory of the visible cosmos, exulting in “…the work of your fingers, the moon and stars, which you have set in place.” Later, in Psalm 104:24, living creatures are recognized as part of God’s manifold works: “…In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” These creatures “…all look to you (the Lord), to give them their food in due season (v. 27). Job 37-39 reviews the majesty and power of contemporary spectacular weather events, Earth’s geologic history, and the fascinating behavior of many of our planet’s living creatures.       

Before addressing issues surrounding food webs, we use several thoughts and quotes from “The Poetry of Science in the Book of Job,” written by Subby Szterszky of Focus on the Family Canada. Many have stated the Bible is not a science textbook. Szterszky responds, saying, “Textbooks are often dry and prosaic affairs…..God’s word, by contrast, speaks to the whole person—heart, soul, strength and mind…..all things in scripture—historical accounts, prophecies, songs, descriptions of nature— are recorded with a specific purpose in view. That purpose… to turn our eyes heavenward, to focus our thoughts and affections on the glory of God.”

Scripture “…touch(es) on a wide array of what we call scientific disciplines, including geoscience, oceanography, climatology, and zoology.” In pre-scientific days when scripture authors lived, many uncertainties existed that modern science has solved. “Modern science has yielded mysteries and wonders our ancestors could never have imagined. Whether in the depths of space, in the heart of the atom, or in the riddle of life itself, the hand of the Creator has become evident in ways that Job and his contemporaries would not have dreamed possible.”

Against this background we cite several inspirational passages concerning food production and consumption such as Psalm 65:9, Psalm 104:13-14, and Psalm 107:9. These verses imply the reality of food webs, food chains, and food cycles. Understanding these concepts magnifies the role of our Creator as Designer: God, in His wisdom, has designed the relationships between and among species with regard to their food sustenance.  

We stress the consistent availability of food for all of Earth’s creatures, including humanity. Many scriptures highlight our understanding that God sustains the existence of all living creatures. We begin with a brief discussion of a simplified food chain.

Green plants are autotrophs, ‘self’ feeders sometimes categorized as food producers. They make their own food (simple chemical sugars) from water and carbon dioxide in the presence of sunlight. Plants use inorganic substances to produce organic foods. The plant, therefore, manufactures its own food products. Many plant food products are consumed by heterotrophs which cannot make their own food. Literally, heterotrophs are ‘other’ feeders. They are categorized as food consumers. Compared with autotrophs, heterotrophs consume food manufactured by another source besides themselves. Herbivores consume only plants. Omnivores consume both plants and other animals. Carnivores consume only other animals. Herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores are all heterotrophs.

Food chains consist of a simple linear sequence of organisms. For instance, a plant supplies food for a grasshopper. In turn, the grasshopper becomes a meal for a frog, which may become food for a snake, which in turn is eaten by a hawk. This sequence is somewhat oversimplified but exemplifies the general concept of a food chain.

Food webs are more complex and interesting. They consist of many interconnected and interlocking food chains. These chains involve transfer of nutrients and energy from one organism to another. The energy level transfer may be modified by omnivores which derive their food from several locations on the food chain. Sometimes a chain is interrupted by the death of an organism. Its decomposed body is then recycled into a position on another food chain. Food webs represent many interconnected nutritional pathways. Generally, food webs describe who eats what on food chains. As we carefully observe the fields, woods, air, and waterways there are many opportunities to observe food chains and to understand the intricacies of food webs.

Scripture does not formally address the topics of food webs and food chains. It does, however, challenge us to recognize and understand the plan of the Divine Designer on our unique planet brimming with life. We close with Isaiah 66:2. Its purpose is to “turn our eyes heavenward, to focus our thoughts and affections on the glory of God.”

All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be. (ESV) 



Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Feeding the Mammals

Don’t feed the mammals? Imagine seeing a similar warning sign in a village, county, state, or national park! People may scratch their heads and wonder: Why not just “Don’t feed the animals?” When we were young we may have distinguished birds from animals. We clarify: Birds are animals. Likewise, snails, snakes, and insects are animals. Warning park visitors not to “feed the animals” may be more precisely stated, “Don’t feed the mammals.” Feeding mammals such as deer, bear, or even squirrels, chipmunks, or raccoons could be unwise or dangerous for many reasons. Most warnings against feeding the animals relate to similar species. 

(Our youngest park visitors may not be able to process biological classifications, but they understand that living things are grouped into kingdoms—plant and animal kingdoms. Most young children learn the difference between plants and animals. We might draw distinctions within the animal kingdom when we warn park visitors not to feed the animals. Different systems of classification and taxonomy have arisen as knowledge of living things has increased. Animal and plant kingdoms have been recognized along the spectrum of different classification schemes.)

Some traditionally connect scripture references of God’s care for animals with the most familiar creatures. The psalmist David, the author of the Book of Job, and many other scripture authors have highlighted the largesse God provides for all of His created beings, including the familiar kingdom “animalia.” With our contemporary enhanced knowledge of food cycles, food webs, food chains, biomes, ecosystems, energy flows, and nutrient cycles in relatively recent times, we have become aware of the depth of wisdom and perception of ancient scripture writers. Our enhanced modern biological knowledge gives man the rationale for acknowledging a Creator who provides and has always provided food for all living things in wondrous ways. Pastors and teachers have exquisite reasons to extol the God of heaven and Earth for His infinite creative wisdom in designing food webs, food cycles, food chains, and related phenomena which have sustained all living creatures on this planet for eons. Millions of living species lived and thrived long before the creation of modern humanity.

Familiar scripture passage such as Genesis 1:30 quotes God, “And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food” (NIV). Plants have been the foundation of complex food chains and food webs sustaining all living creatures. Genesis 9:3 explicitly enlarges upon God’s divine provision for food thousands of years later: “Every thing that lives and moves will be food for you…” Recalling the diverse agricultural offerings of Cain and Abel, we may conclude that nutrition of many types was available during prior centuries, not only for humans, but also for all living things.

Psalm 136 begins with several exhortations to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.” The ensuing verses in Chapter 136 express the psalmist’s reasons for his emotion of thankfulness. The passage is not only of devotional value, but also of scientific value penned in pre-scientific days. Verses 25-26 close the chapter, recognizing God “…who gives food to every creature. His love endures forever.” This would include food for all five classes of phylum “chordata” as well as living creatures in 34 additional animal phyla—literally millions of different species.

We trust readers will understand the exhortation of park personnel not to “feed the mammals” (or even the birds) in light of this discussion. Much literature is available to give us pause concerning animal feeding. Not only do we cause animals to be unnecessarily dependent upon man for food, but we may be subject to injury from the wild animals, be instrumental in spreading animal diseases, cause injury to the animals from inadequate or unbalanced diets, or disrupt the animals’ natural food gathering or hunting behavior. Our population may be more willing to accept this advice in our day when “natural” qualities appear to be more desirable. On a personal level, our family has been blessed by observing natural animal behavior unenhanced by either the presence of feeders or by the action of humans who feed the animals.

A favorite traditional hymn text by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) expresses the theological, devotional, and even scientific truths of Planet Earth’s food production. Verse 2 of “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” aptly expresses knowledge of and devotion to the Creator of All Things:

I sing the goodness of the Lord That filled the earth with food;
He formed the creatures with His word And then pronounced them good.
Lord, how thy wonders are displayed Where-e’er I turn my eye:
If I survey the ground I tread Or gaze upon the sky!





Monday, February 10, 2020

Feeding the Birds

Bird feeders have supplied joy for thousands of bird lovers anxious to observe birds at close range. Birds are a wonderful biological class—a superb category of living creatures to provide joy for humanity. It is not surprising that many people have devised means of inviting birds into our close range environment. We highlighted Class Aves in our post of 8/8/18:

Since our 2002 arrival in northwest Illinois in a unique region called “The Driftless Area” we have become aware of a wondrous area of bird habitation. We have dubbed it “bird heaven,” because the area affords many opportunities to observe the avian population. Could our awareness trigger a desire to “feed the birds?” We let our readers judge for themselves.

Government wildlife agencies discourage the feeding of wildlife. On the spectrum of different species, birds may be an exception to this advice under certain circumstances. The question of supplying food for birds has many parameters. What could be inappropriate in supplying food for God’s beautiful creatures?

Many scripture writers have highlighted birds to illustrate theological truths, including the authors of Genesis and the Book of Job. The Psalmist David, several Old Testament prophets, and Jesus himself in several gospels, pose references to birds. Several hundred passages in Scripture refer to birds or bird imagery. Even though the Bible is not a “Book of Nature,” some authors of scripture have enriched our understanding with their perceptive understanding of nature. 

Students of scripture may notice that human feeding of birds is never mentioned among several hundred biblical references to our feathered companions. Instead, we are told that God provides food for all avian species in various ways. Sometimes birds such as eagles and hawks achieve nourishment through predation. Ravens are supplied with their food from God in various ways. Birds do not sow nor reap, but God feeds them. They find food that is already present. Non-migrating birds have discovered means of finding nourishing seeds or other plant matter produced during the warm growing season. It is not necessary to feed the birds who remain after seasonal changes have spread frigid conditions over the countryside. 

Let us review several positive and negative experiences with backyard bird feeding. When we first embarked on a bird feeder adventure, our wire basket suet block feeder was suspended on a pole from our back yard deck. After a few days it was visited by multiple bird species, the record being six different species in less than one minute. One favorite activity was trying to determine which type of woodpecker was currently visiting: was it a hairy woodpecker or a downy woodpecker? (they are almost identical save for a small difference in overall size). Squirrels and raccoons became aware of the largess after a while. They creatively devised ways to access the seeded suet. I retrieved the wire basket from the ground with what was left of the suet many times. One wire basket was never recovered after an extensive search. 

Our young grandchildren were fascinated by the neighborhood birds. The experience was of high value for them. Out of weariness from replacing the suet and retrieval of the baskets, over time I gradually surrendered to my lack of energy. Rationalization  overcame my motivation. We opted to discontinue the bird feeder adventure.

Does our personal opinion possess ‘campaign value?’ I have surprised friends and family with my alternate view of bird feeders. Notwithstanding, over the past few years our back yard is still frequented by multiple bird species, even though we may be forced to wait longer for viewing opportunities. On occasion our back yard is still a hive of activity. Since last fall our backyard trees have supplied the usual fare of red cedar berries and wild grapes whose vines have overtaken our wild cherry tree. Among the more spectacular visitors to our wild grape crop last fall was the male and female pileated woodpecker pair not even 40 feet from our window. Dozens of cedar waxwings swoop in and are occasionally joined by non-migrating bluebirds and robins in our red cedar trees, even though we are currently deep in the heart of our northwest Illinois winter. Many other species of birds favor us visually with their unique behaviors. High on our list of favorites are the seldom seen but more frequently heard great horned and barred owls.

A surprising truth has been revealed to our family. Job 38:41 and Luke 12:24 provides attitudinal guidelines. Both passages propose God provides food for the ravens. By extension, we infer He provides food for all 10,000 planetary avian species. Even though we are not forbidden to provide food for birds, we subscribe to the principle that the specialized diets naturally accessible to all birds are sufficient for their healthy survival. A USDA guideline applies not only to birds but to the feeding of all wildlife: “Enjoy viewing wildlife at a distance. Respect their space and remember they are wild animals that should stay wild.” This principle of creation care is appropriate and desirable. Many articles on the pros and cons of bird feeding are easily available online.

Among many Scriptures on the wonders of creation is this passage from Psalm 104:10-14 (NIV): “He makes the springs pour water into the ravines, it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth…”