by Scott Moeller
Have you ever seen an angry badger open a box of cereal? Me neither, but every now and then I get a glimpse of what I think it would look like. My kids have no respect for the integrity of the tab-and-slot system, and they remind me of foraging animals when they come upon a new cereal box. Maybe that’s because opening a cereal box is now the closest thing my kids have to obtaining their own food.
Kids today are increasingly detached from where their food comes from. A high school ecology teacher friend of mine recently shared with me that some of his students were “grossed out” by their in-class project of making maple syrup from tree sap. I know kids who won’t touch a piece of beef if it’s still on the bone. And, my own kids actually prefer fast food chicken nuggets to homemade white meat chicken nuggets. “Where does bacon come from?” is as fascinating a dinnertable topic as “Where do babies come from?” or “Why does grampa yell at the TV?”.
Like most problems with today’s young people, I believe this problem stems from a lack of chicken butchering opportunities for today’s youth. When I was a kid, I built character one headless chicken at a time, and came to equate personal growth with the smell of singed feathers. I know I am overly glamorizing it, but my point is that it’s hard to develop a connection with the natural world, if we are removed from the natural system by which we get our food.
And, if you don’t know where your food comes from, it’s hard to understand the food chain and how energy flows through systems. Imagine, then, the difficulty of an educator trying to teach this concept to a group of children.
But wait. There is hope. Enter, the fish! Engaging kids in a real-world lesson about food chains and the flow of energy through systems is as easy as going fishing. Catch a bluegill, hold it up, and let that be the launchpad for your lesson.
That bluegill grew larger because it fed on small fish, aquatic insects, snails and worms.
Those small fish and invertebrates grew because they fed on very small daphnia, scuds, rotifers and other zooplankton. Those tiny critters grew because they fed on the algae and other microscopic aquatic plants (phytoplankton) in the water. And those things got their energy from the sun. (Lesson 1:2 - Food Chain Tag (30 pages | 3.3 MB), and Lesson 1:4 - Water Habitat Site Study (43 pages | 8.3 MB) in the MinnAqua Fishing: Get in the Habitat! Leader’s Guide can help you out with these topics.)
But, if too much talk about producers, consumers, and decomposers causes their attention to wane, you can always mention that sometimes bluegills eat other bluegills. For example, if a father bluegill doesn’t like something one of his kids is doing, he might just decide to take care of the problem by eating the kid! (it’s actually more complicated than that, but this oversimplification sidesteps the lurid details of bluegill sex and the cases of questionable paternity that frequently arise.)
And angry bluegill dads aren’t the only things small bluegills need to watch out for. Bluegills are food for herons, snapping turtles, otters, as well as larger fish like pike, walleye and bass. And then there are humans. Yes, if you want to, you can actually take this packet of energy off of your hook and take it home with you and eat it. You don’t have to worry about plastic packaging, preservatives, too much fat or sugar. Some kids will balk at the idea of eating a fish that came “right out of the lake” because it didn’t come wrapped in packaging from the store, but most kids love the idea of eating food that they caught. It is a direct connection with food the way food is supposed to be, and a direct connection with the environment from which our food comes.
So, let nature be your guide, and teach some priceless lessons about food chains, energy flow, and where food comes from, all while having fun and making memories at the lakeshore. That sure beats a live chicken and a hatchet.