When the Swallows Return to Capistrano

The event is locked into modern culture.  “When the swallows come back to Capistrano” go the lyrics of a song written in the 1930s that became a popular hit of the time, recorded by the hit group, The Ink Spots, in 1940.  The annual return of the swallows is used as metaphor for a reliable, regularly occurring event—like tax day!

The bird at the center of this phenomenon is the Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), one species of the group of small, graceful birds that swoop over the landscape catching insects.  They are about five inches long, dark brown except for a white forehead and orange-red cheeks.  Their head and neck appear iridescent in good lighting.  They are common, nesting throughout the United States and wintering in South and Central America.

Cliff Swallow (photo by Dori)

They make mud nests, stuck against a cliff or wall, usually in colonies.  The farther west the birds live, the larger their colonies seem to be, sometimes up to a thousand in one group.  They gather small pellets of mud from nearby shorelines, building gourd-shaped nests that contain many hundreds of such pellets.

Although Cliff Swallows are common, one particular nesting colony has gained an international reputation.  In the southern California town of San Juan Capistrano, the birds have colonized a Spanish mission for hundreds of years.  The mission was built in 1776, one of a chain of missions extending down the California coast.  An earthquake in 1812 reduced most of the mission to ruins.

Part of the ruins of the Mission at San Juan Capistrano. These bells are rung on March 19, for the festival of the Return of the Swallows (photo by Prayitno)

Ruined or not, Cliff Swallows have long considered the mission their home.  Every year, thousands of the birds have made their way from wintering grounds in Goya, Argentina, to this region for nesting—a 6,000-mile one-way journey.  In pioneer days, shopkeepers drove birds away from their porches, so the birds moved to the mission.  There they found an idea place for nesting.  It lies near the confluence of two local rivers, providing an ample supply of mud.  The broken down walls provide myriads of nesting sites, with relatively little disturbance by people.

The birds arrive in mid-March, and the city has declared March 19, also known as St. Joseph’s Day, the Day of the Return of the Swallows.  The annual festival has become a major tourist event, drawing visitors from across the globe.

Unfortunately, recent years have not been good for the Cliff Swallows of San Juan Capistrano.  When work began in the 1990s to restore the mission, the accumulated nests were removed.  Returning birds spread out, looking for other sites—and they found them in the growing development in the area, including the arches of shopping malls and the eaves of nearby homes. For a decades at least, no Cliff Swallows returned to nest in the old mission.

The community has tried several strategies to bring the birds back.  A temporary wall outfitted with artificial nests was installed, with the hope that it would attract birds to the pre-fabricated homes just like humans moving into a new suburban neighborhood.  Recordings of nesting birds are played as another tactic to attract their fellows.  The grounds have even been seeded with ladybugs and other insects to provide an attractive food source.

And it may be working.  Cliff Swallows are more frequently seen these days flying in the vicinity of the mission.  And in 2017, two nests were built in the mission.  The executive director of the mission said, “We feel like new mothers.  It’s ridiculous we’re so excited.”  She described the nests as “a miracle to us.”

In a sense, the whole thing is a miracle.  Tiny birds fly thousands of miles between their winter and summer homes.  They find an ideal place to build a nest and raise the next generation.  It is a miracle that nature reprises in the life histories of millions of species across the lands and waters of our beautiful blue and green earth.  And let’s hope that Capistrano’s miracle keeps on happening.

References:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Cliff Swallow.  Available at:  https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cliff_Swallow/lifehistory#nesting.  Accessed March 18, 2018.

Cuniff, Meghann M.  2017.  Swallows at San Juan Capistrano were driven away by development.  But the birds are slowly coming back.  Los Angeles Times, June 2, 2017.  Available at:  http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-swallow-capistrano-20170602-htmlstory.html.  Accessed March 18, 2018.

Opar, Alisa and Troy Harvey.  2016.  A Homecoming for the Legendary Swallows of Mission San Juan Capistrano?  Audubon, July 7, 2016.  Available at:  http://www.audubon.org/news/a-homecoming-legendary-swallows-mission-san-juan-capistrano.  Accessed March 18, 2018.

Slatta, Richard W.  2001.  The Mythical West:  An Encyclopedia of Legend, Lore, and Popular Culture.  ABCj-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA.  Available at:  https://books.google.com/books?id=iczSBcAUC5oC&pg=PA334#v=onepage&q&f=false.  Accessed March 18, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

June 1
US Announced Withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement (2017)
June 2
Edwin Way Teale, Nature Writer, Born (1899)
June 2
Rodne Galicha, Philippine Environmentalist, Born (1979)
June 3
The World’s First Wilderness Area Established (1924)
June 4
Gaylord Nelson, Politician and Conservationist, Born (1916)
June 5
World Environment Day
June 6
Novarupta Volcano Erupted in Alaska (1912)
June 7
Thomas Malthus Published His Famous Essay (1798)
June 8
Bryce Canyon National Park Created (1923)
June 9
Coral Triangle Day
June 10
E. O. Wilson, Father of Biodiversity, Born (1929)
June 11
Jacques Cousteau, Ocean Explorer, Born (1910)
June 12
Frank Chapman, Creator of the Christmas Bird Count, Born (1864)
June 13
Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, Born (1944)
June 14
Bramble Cay Melomys Went Extinct (2016)
June 15
Global Wind Day
June 16
Gray Whale Delisted (1994)
June 17
World Day to Combat Desertification
June 18
Alexander Wetmore, Ornithologist and Smithsonian Leader, Born (1866)
June 19
Feast of the Forest, Palawan, Philippines
June 20
Great Barrier Reef Protected (1975)
June 21
World Hydrography Day
June 22
Cuyahoga River Burst into Flames (1969)
June 23
Antarctic Treaty Implemented (1961)
June 24
David McTaggart, Greenpeace Leader, Born (1932)
June 25
David Douglas, Pioneering Botanist, Born (1799)
June 26
United Nations Chartered (1945)
June 27
Tajik National Park Added to World Heritage List (2013)
June 28
Mark Shand, Asian Elephant Conservationist, Born (1951)
June 29
Mesa Verde National Park Created (1906)
June 30
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Created (1940)
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