Gifts in Darkness
The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill
over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering
the house, found the child with Mary, his mother. ~ Matthew 2:9-11
You will never see a cuter, deadly fuzz ball than a Northern Saw-whet Owl. They are tiny and
truly adorable, and unless you are an even smaller rodent, they are not dangerous. They are too
small to do you any harm, even if they got their talons in you, it would only feel like a pin-prick.
If they wanted to bite you, they could rip a bit of flesh, but on the whole they tend not to feel
threatened by humans. When they roost during the day, they tend to be easily approachable
and slow to flush. Perhaps it is because large mammals don’t tend to pose a threat to them. It is
not that they are fearless because they are predators. In fact, that would likely lead them to
posture threateningly when approached. Rather, they are also prey, so they have adapted
Over the past couple of decades, research on these migratory nocturnal hunters has revealed
interesting data. Bird banders set up mist nets at night and played audio lures to attract the
birds. Many of the banded birds have been recaptured, providing good information about
movement and age for this species. As it turns out, they are much more abundant over a much
wider range than ever suspected previously. One interesting pattern that was observed at the
banding station where I volunteered was that the biggest flights were during the new moon. In
fact, one night there was a lunar eclipse and on the next run to check the nets we collected a
few birds after having none on the previous checks while the moon was bright. The probable
explanation is that while owls can certainly hunt in near total darkness, the moon is a help in
locating prey. So, not only is the night of the full moon better for Saw-whets to hunt and thus
makes sense to stay put, it is also a better night for larger owls, such as Barred and Great
Horned to turn the smaller Saw-whet into its dinner.
It is hard to think of darkness as a gift. Even as adults, a healthy fear of the dark is warranted.
Danger certainly can lurk in the shadows and we need to be careful when moving in the dark.
But we need to be careful not to give excess power to the unknown, allowing that which we
can’t see to control us. The Magi followed a star to find the infant messiah. They must have
welcomed the darkness every evening as the sun set so that they could continue their journey.
We often don’t consider the gift that struggle can bring. We should not seek out suffering
intentionally, but we all know that it will come to us, so we certainly ought to seek to learn
lessons from the pain. Perhaps we can learn from the owls how to adapt, taking appropriate
caution while finding the gifts in darkness.
Prayer: Light of the world, shine forth from us, keep us safe as we learn the gifts in darkness.