Bringing back San Juan Capistrano’s swallows is one tough mission
A bird’s call rings endlessly inside the adobe walls at Mission San Juan Capistrano as tourists wander through the courtyard —ablaze with flowers in full bloom — and a handful of fourth-graders snap pictures and take notes for class projects.
Hardly the sweet song of the nightingale, the sound is more like the croak of a distressed frog — or, by an expert’s own description, a “rusty, squeaky door.”
It’s a last-ditch effort to lure back the cliff swallow, which put San Juan Capistrano on the map but has snubbed the mission in recent years. The mission has tried drawing them back with food. It has tried shelter. Now, it’s trying seduction.
PHOTOS: Swallows’ Day at the missionThe birds, with their orange-colored rumps and white foreheads, once arrived in such numbers that their swarms looked like storm clouds in the spring sky, a migration that inspired songs, paintings and a yearly parade.
But urbanization and disruptions from a preservation effort at the church have chased them away, and the once familiar cliff swallow’s mating cry is no longer heard.
The noise now is from a speaker hooked to an iPod, tucked away in the bushes behind a statue of the mission’s founder, Fray Junipero Serra. The recording of the swallow’s mating call plays on a continuous loop, up to six hours a day five days a week.
For this latest, and perhaps final, attempt to bring the swallows home to the majestic ruins of their Great Stone Church, mission workers turned to a scientist from Oklahoma who volunteered to help them.
“We owe the community the effort; the community of San Juan Capistrano is integrated with the swallows,” Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, executive director of the mission since 2003, says as she strolls the courtyard. “It’s not an act of desperation.”
Moments later, though, her eyes well up as she embraces a colleague.
She thinks she spotted a swallow.
You may not encounter swallows on the mission grounds, but in one way or another, they’re everywhere in San Juan Capistrano.
A puff of decorative swallows, frozen in flight, hang off the sound wall along Interstate 5, and shops around town always have swallow jewelry and knickknacks in stock. A popular Mexican restaurant in town is named Los Golondrinas — Spanish for swallows.
“This town is very connected with the swallows,” said Monique Rea, an artist who has lived in San Juan Capistrano for 40 years and who paints the birds. “It’s a big thing. They don’t just come here — they like other places too — but San Juan is the home of the swallows.”
For decades, the city welcomed back the birds each St. Joseph’s Day with a parade that grew to include several hundred horses — one of the largest non-motorized parades in the country.
The parade continues, but without many swallows to greet.
For them, the mission has lost its luster.
“The city kept growing and growing,” said Don Tryon, archivist for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. “The swallows had a heck of a lot more opportunities to put their nests anywhere they wanted.”
The regulars at the Swallows Inn, a favorite watering hole in town, say the birds are around — in the eaves of homes, nesting in overpasses and near creek beds.
E.J. O’Donnell, 64, said he’s even seen them up the freeway in Anaheim. “I can verify that!” he said.
Some here seem to prefer the legend of the birds to the reality — the swallows aren’t so beloved when their nest is on your house and they’re making a mess.
“It’s mainly a tradition,” said Dave Scribner, 62. “We don’t sit here waiting for the birds.”
“It could be two or 200,” added Sal Grazioli, 62. “It wouldn’t make a difference.”
But to tourists, and to those whose livelihood depends on their arrival, having fewer around does make a difference.
“It doesn’t lower the number of people who come to San Juan Capistrano; it lowers the number of people who come back,” said Dominic Mayo, 26, who works at a shop across from the mission.
Even today, San Juan Capistrano is easy to spot as the place where big-box stores and mini-manses give way to a look centuries removed from its surroundings. The lush community beside the green-covered hills has an old-world Spanish motif, and even banks and burger chains are designed with the same stucco walls and terra cotta roofs.
But before this city of about 35,000 people gained shopping centers and traffic, there was simply the mission, with its chapel, school and Great Stone Church.
The cross-shaped cathedral’s high stone walls, badly damaged during an earthquake in the early 1800s, rose like a cliff amid the rolling meadows — the ideal place for cliff swallows to establish colonies of their gourd-shaped nests.
The swallows, according to legend, were welcomed to the mission by Father St. John O’Sullivan, the pastor from 1919 to 1933. In his book “Capistrano Nights,” he wrote of an encounter with a man using a pole to knock their nests from the eaves of his shop.
“Come on, swallows,” the priest recalled saying, “I’ll give you shelter. Come to the mission. There’s room enough there for all.”
The birds would fly to Argentina each autumn and return in the spring. O’Sullivan noticed they tended to come back around St. Joseph’s Day, March 19 — his birthday. Hundreds would flock together, forming a gray cluster of feathers overhead.
The swallows drew media attention, spreading the story far beyond Capistrano. One broadcaster in the 1930s spoke of “skies blackened with swallows.”
Their place in pop culture was cemented when Leon Rene wrote the song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” First recorded in 1940, it was a hit several times over with renditions by Glenn Miller and Pat Boone, among others.
All the mission bells will ring/
The chapel choir will sing/
The happiness you’ll bring/
Will live in my memory/
When the swallows come back to Capistrano/
That’s the day I pray that you’ll come back to me
Years after the mission had to clear away colonies of nests to stabilize and preserve the ruins — and after urbanization had made the sanctuary’s walls no longer seem so tall — mission officials say they are asked almost daily: When will the swallows come back to Capistrano?
They tried bringing in ceramic nests to replace the ones taken down. That didn’t work. (“No cliff swallow would ever use it,” the expert scoffed.)
They brought in ladybugs, thinking that maybe they could entice the swallows back with one of their favorite meals. That didn’t work, either.
With visitors still asking about the birds, Lawrence-Adams decided to refocus the mission’s efforts. But she said she wanted it to be “a sincere effort, not a cheesy effort.”
“We do need to have a place to respect their connection to the mission,” she said. “This mission has been here 200 years, so it’s OK to have some nests.”
That’s when they turned to the expert: Charles Brown, a biologist at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, who has spent 30 years researching the cliff swallow. He’s been enamored with birds since childhood — the purple martin in particular. He began studying the cliff swallow in college, an interest that would become a lifelong pursuit.
He was especially taken by their social patterns. “They do everything as a group,” he explained. Seeing them flock together, he added, was breathtaking. “I don’t know of any other natural spectacle that’s equal to it.”
Brown, who had ties to the mission after lecturing there in the past, acknowledged that his experiment is a long shot. “If the cliff swallows return, it’s probably going to stay a marginal population,” he said. “The landscape isn’t suitable for them anymore. It will be a struggle to keep them there.”
Plenty of winged creatures dance through the warm air on a recent afternoon at the mission: mockingbirds, house finches, woodpeckers, bees.
But late in the day, after the fourth-graders are gone, and with a few remaining visitors wandering the grounds, Lawrence-Adams spies a dash of orange on a sparrow-sized bird.
“Seriously!” she says. “This thing is working!”
No bells ring, no choir sings. Only a lusting squawk from a portable speaker can be heard as the bird dives and darts before finally drifting away.
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