According to legend, cliff swallows return to nest at Mission San Juan Capistrano on March 19, St. Joseph's Day. Every March 19 is a day of celebration, with food, music, and dance. Do the swallows really return exactly on March 19? Why would they go to Mission San Juan Capistrano, and why are they showing up there less often?
Cliff swallows winter in South America, from Paraguay to Brazil to Argentina. They return to North America to nest and are found in most of the United States except for the southeast and the driest parts of the desert. They are also found in Canada except for the northeast and far north. They return to their summering grounds in spring. At Mission San Juan Capistrano, they first appear between early February and mid March, and in rare instances, in June They do not all arrive at the same time, and it seems that there were almost always at least a few returning to the area on March 19.
Ruins of the stone church
The stone church at Mission San Juan Capistrano was started in 1797 and completed in 1806. It was part of the Spanish method of conquest, of turning the Natives into "proper" Spanish citizens by teaching them the European way of life. However, the stone church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812. The mission complex consisted of many buildings and church services were moved to a nearby adobe building. The stone church was never rebuilt and the striking ruins remain to this day.
Cliff swallows take at least three things into consideration when considering a nest site: the presence of a cliff, the availability of mud, and a source of food. The cliff does not need to a geological structure and nowadays, many more nests are built on the sides of buildings and bridges than they are on natural cliffs. A mission had to be built near a dependable source of water and the Capistrano complex was built near the San Juan Creek. Where there is a source of water, there will be a source of mud. Where there is water, there will also be flying insects, which make up the bulk of the swallows' food. Here were the three necessities in one place.
Perhaps these fake nests can attract real birds
The return of the swallows has been a celebrated tradition since at least 1777, but nowadays, they show up less and less and sometimes not at all. The species is not dwindling, at least not on a nationwide basis. Swallows are still returning to the area, but not to the mission. Now they can be found at more mundane places like shopping malls, freeway bridges, and a local country club. The reason for the change is not readily understood, but it could be due to increased urbanization of the mission neighborhood or they could have been inadvertently driven off by stabilization work done to the stone church. Also, swallows have been known to temporarily abandon a nesting site when it becomes too infested with parasites.
The swallows of Capistrano are a romantic piece of Old California. The mission is trying to re-attract the swallows by putting up fake nests and playing swallow sounds. Thankfully the species is still healthy, and hopefully some birds will soon see fit to nest again in this picturesque location.
Click the image below to hear Pat Boone sing "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano".
Thumbnail photo by Martin Harms, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, " Cliff Swallows in Cayucos, California, USA"
About Kelli Kallenborn
I have lived in California for 20 years and really enjoy the climate and all of the varied natural ecosystems.