The Swallows of San Juan Capistrano

I’ve been knee-deep in research on migratory animal behaviors lately, as I work to produce a thesis about human and animal movement and home-building.  As a result, when my own nomadic path led me San Juan Capistrano a few weeks ago, I had to visit the infamous mission – the site to which the well-known swallows supposedly return in the spring of each year.

In 1776, while America’s founding fathers were busy drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence on the east coast, Father Junipero Serra was establishing Mission San Juan Capistrano on the west coast, in the Mexican territory of California.  Twenty-one missions were built by the Catholic Church; San Juan Capistrano’s was the seventh of them.  The mission converted 4,639 indigenous Acjachemen (or Juaneño) people between the year of its founding and it transfer to private ownership in 1845.

The legend of the swallows came about much later, after the mission had been returned to the Catholic Church in 1865. According to the version of the story disseminated by modern mission staffers, Father John O’Sullivan, who served as the church’s pastor from 1910 to 1933, was appalled when he saw a local store owner destroying the nests that cliff swallows had built under his eaves.

If you’ve never seen a cliff swallow nest, it’s basically a mini adobe structure – a cone-shaped shelter made of mud and straw with a hole for ingress and egress. Father O’Sullivan asked the shopkeeper what he was doing, and the man replied that he was destroying the nests in order to eliminate the birds’ noise and filth. The priest told the swallows that they should relocate to the mission where there would always be a place for them; and, supposedly, the swallows began building their mud homes at the church the very next day.

For years people have celebrated the “return” of the swallows to the mission (and to the town) on March 19th.  The birds return from Goya, Argentina, their overwintering spot that lies 6000 miles south of San Juan Capistrano.  When they make the long journey back to their California breeding grounds, they follow the insect hatches that serve as their food.  Upon arriving, they prefer to reclaim the previous year’s nests – although not necessarily their own.

Some would say that this legend was Father O’Sullivan’s publicity stunt.  It, along with the song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” managed to put this city and this mission on the map. Tourists have flocked to the area in March of each year to witness the return of the globetrotting birds.

And, in classic human fashion, we fouled the whole thing up with development.  Both an increase in building in the city and a renovation project to the mission itself began to deter the birds from nesting there.

So, about eight years ago, the mission contracted an ornithologist specializing in cliff swallow behavior to develop a plan to bring them back.  Phase 1 of the plan involved playing recorded swallow mating calls over loudspeakers on the mission property.  Phase 2 included the installation of about 30 human-made cliff swallow nests in the spots where real ones were previously located.  The intention was to make it easy for the returning migrants to reinhabit existing sites. As of last summer, they have apparently returned.  In fact, the mission’s website hosts a “swallow cam” that enables the curious to keep track of their progress.

Despite the fact that the swallows’ “departure day” is celebrated in October, I didn’t see any of the birds on the sweltering August day I chose to visit the mission. I did see a lot of church-based tour groups, however, and I watched a hoard of catering staff set up for a wedding.

Most of all, though, I enjoyed the light.  Both the older structures (a section of the mission is the oldest surviving building in California) and the newer additions have beautiful lines, and the bright sun accentuated their angles with stark shadows and warm earthy colors.

My surroundings were striking enough to encourage a lingering visit – one during which I had some time to think about my own immanent migration.  I was to leave my favorite state of California two days later in order to spend another nine-month chunk of time in Flagstaff, AZ, and I had – and have – mixed feelings about that.

In the course of my time in San Juan Capistrano, I discovered that the city also hosts an overwintering site for monarch butterflies – a species which, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you may know I maintain an obsession with.  They won’t be back until October sometime.

Perhaps that’s the perfect time for me to return as well.


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