Survivor in a Foreign Land


There is none like it. Less than 200 years ago, there were zero. The estimated population of these living creatures today is estimated at 82 million.  They exist in all states but Alaska and Hawaii. They are found in Canada, Mexico and South America as well. Allow my repetition: less than 200 years ago there were none living in the Americas. They came from Europe by boat. Our subject is the House Sparrow, brought here by individuals who believed them to be pleasant and beneficial. In recent years, they have been called “weeds of the air”. (see end note) By 1875, 24 years later, the range of the House Sparrow was estimated to be 517,376 square miles of the North American continent. (Today, all of North America.) In 1892 counties in Pennsylvania were paying 2 cents per head in bounty for sparrows. This did little to slow the wildfire spread of this gregarious, expansive import.

How can the little sparrow spread more of its kind so quickly? First, House Sparrows (Passer domesticus, or HOSP) are proficiently prolific. In one year, a pair of HOSP may have 2-5 clutches of eggs! The average pair produces up to 20 young each year. Using conservative estimates offspring of this same pair could produce up to 1,250 young in 5 years! Male and female work as a team in nest-building. The young hatch within 16 days. These young are fully feathered just 17 days later. In comparison, the Bluebird will have only 2 clutches in a good nesting season. Usually they have only 1 clutch of up to 7 young. Another factor favoring the HOSP is their aggressive nature. They begin nest building before migratory birds arrive, sometimes with snow still on the ground. The very territorial nature of the HOSP causes it to drive off other birds that might nest in the same area. In worst cases, the sparrow will crush other birds eggs and even kill their nestlings. On some occasions, the sparrow will kill adult song birds. The competitive life cycle of the House Sparrow may impact the nesting of up to 70 species of native birds

Along with aggression and high fertility, the HOSP is an exceptionally hardy bird. It does not migrate. This lowers mortality rates too. It can eat more than 800 different kinds of foods. It is not shy around humans, but readily takes waste food we scatter, or throw out. It is an effective scavenger. In this birds amazing adjustable diet there are things like grains, insects, vegetables, spiders, even human food waste. It is not found in dense deciduous forests. Life is better for the House Sparrow in areas where humans are present.

In my own heart, there is a grudging admiration for this little survivor. Yet, there are times my thoughts mirror those of W.L. Dawson who wrote “Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow.” (The Birds of Ohio, 1903).

Taken from its native habitat, it soon was thriving in a land for which it was never intended. It had built-in survival skills. It did not have to learn how to survive, it did upon arrival. Though the first imported individuals did not survive, in less than 100 years the House Sparrow population was estimated at more than 150,000,000 birds!  While the House Sparrow was “introduced” to the North American continent by humans, humans did not foster the explosive growth. Yet, this did not happen by chance. How is it that a little bird weighing just an ounce can thrive in a foreign environment? The first House Sparrows were subjected to weeks of disorienting ocean travel on a ship. They were brought into a land their eyes had never seen. Yet, when released into the wild they could find food, water and shelter-and thrive! Pause to reflect. From where did such fertility come? Another way to describe this population explosion is to explain it for what it is: a miracle.

The answer to this miracle is found in the first sentence of the Bible; “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. Later, we read these words, “it was very good.” We are further reminded of God’s infinite power in the words Jeremiah wrote, “Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you. (32:17) The Psalmist identified the miracle of the sparrow through these words, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well”. (Psalm 139:14). Nothing is too hard for God, even the task of multiplying sparrows. While the House Sparrow has negatively impacted native song bird populations, there is visible, powerful evidence that the works of God are undeniably present. The evidence is in an imported bird weighing barely 1/16 of a pound.

Now, apply the true story of the sparrow, think about your own life. First, where we are concerned, NO thing is too hard for God. Repeat this out loud. Then remember, He loves you. Tell Him your problems. If He can multiply the sparrow, surely nothing you face is difficult for Him. He is over all. You are made in His image. You, and I are people who are part of His wonderful works. Last, God carefully cares for all His works. He knows your name. This last thought is really important, you are worth more than 150,000,000 sparrows.

“So, don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows”. Matthew 10:31

A final thought…

A certain traveler who knew many continents was asked what he found most remarkable of all.  He replied: the ubiquity of sparrows.
Adam Zagajewski, Another Beauty, 2002