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“When the swallows come back to Capistrano”

by Donald Prothero, Mar 28 2012

Last week (starting on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day), the city of San Juan Capistrano began their annual celebration of a huge festival in honor of the return of the swallows. According to the legend, the swallows nested in the old historic Mission (founded in 1776 by Father Serra himself) because an irate shopkeeper destroyed their mud nests, and today the return of the swallows is considered a semi-miraculous event. In one version of the story:

In his book Capistrano Nights, Father St. John O’Sullivan, Pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1910-33, tells how the swallows first came to call the Mission home. One day, while walking through town, Father O’Sullivan saw a shopkeeper, broomstick in hand. He was knocking down the cone-shaped mud swallow nests under the eaves of his shop. The birds were darting back and forth, shreiking over the destruction of their homes.”What in the world are you doing?” O’Sullivan asked.”Why, these dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!” the shopkeeper responded. “But where can they go?””I don’t know and I don’t care,” he replied, slashing away with his pole. “But they’ve no business here, destroying my property.”O’Sullivan then said, “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”The very next morning, Father O’Sullivan discovered the swallows busy building their nests outside Father Junipero Serra’s Church.

Amazingly, they fly 6000 miles from their winter nesting grounds near Goya in Corrientes, Argentina, which is one of the longest migrations known and even more remarkable when you realize the bird is smaller than the size of your fist. This purely local event wouldn’t have become such a big deal if it were not for the 1940 chart-topping song, “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano”, which was recorded by everyone from  Gene Autry to Glenn Miller to the Ink Spots to the King Sisters  to Guy Lombardo to Pat Boone. (I vividly remember how often my parents would sing or play records of this song, a family sentimental favorite).

The city and its boosters use the occasion to put on a huge week-long festival, which draws 35,000-40,000 visitors to this tiny town of a few thousand, according to the Los Angeles Times. On Saturday, March 24, 2012, there was a huge parade and street fair with about 3200 participants and over 500 horses, but traveling only a few blocks (1.5 miles). It is said to be the largest non-motorized parade in the U.S.  I once marched in that parade with my high school band (I play trombone). I remember the festival as a huge deal, with vendors set up everywhere and every shop in town crammed with tourists. Except for the businesses, however, most of the residents of the town who DON’T make a buck from the mobs hate the crowds and traffic and people parking illegally everywhere. Part of my family still lives in San Juan Capistrano, and they try to leave town during that weekend.

There’s one small problem with the whole thing: it’s a complete myth! The return of the swallows does not happen on March 19; the swallows don’t return to the Mission any more; and most don’t even return to the region!

The problem lies with the ecology of the swallows themselves. These tiny birds do fly enormous distances from Argentina, but in small groups. They must stop often to rest and feed and build up energy for each leg of the long perilous trip. Typically, the scout birds that have flown fastest or left earliest arrive first, but scattered over many days in March, so there may be some swallows there on March 19, but they’re not the first birds, nor even the main flocks of birds. Before the 1960s, San Juan Capistrano was a tiny town with just a few hundred houses surrounding the old Mission. In those days, the Mission was the largest structure in town, so the cliff swallows used the artificial “cliffs” of the Mission walls and eaves to build their little mud nests. Thus, the myth got launched, and persisted for many years aided by the song.

The real irony is that the very development and growth that the city’s boosters hope to foster with their over-the-top festivities is the primary reason there are no swallows there any more. As I learned when I studied Vertebrate Field Biology with Dr. Wilbur Mayhew at University of California, Riverside, in the 1970s, swallows catch insects on the wing, swooping through clouds of flies and mosquitoes with their beaks open. They normally feed in wetlands and above streams and ponds where these flying insects breed. But development wiped out nearly all the original wetlands and ponds in old San Juan Creek, so it’s now just a concrete-lined ditch with a few gravelly areas of natural stream bed. Cut off from their source of food, the cliff swallows have moved inland to less developed areas, such as the Chino Hills. They have no reason to return to San  Juan Capistrano any more.

Every time I’ve been down there during the Swallow Festival and visited the Mission, I’ve made a point of looking for swallows or their nests. Nothing. I’ve seen a few underneath the bridges over San Juan Creek (another place cliff swallows like to nest), but none on the Mission. Yet as I stand there, I listen to all these amateurs getting excited as a pigeon flies by, or pointing to a jay or a starling and calling it a swallow. (I spent a year learning birding in my college Vertebrate Field Biology class, so I got to be pretty good at identifying any bird in California). Apparently, there are no biologists or birders down there to set them straight.

Other towns use the same faked history to boost their commerce. When my folks lived in the city of San Clemente just south of San Juan Capistrano from the 1970s to 2001, that town made  big fuss about the “La Cristianitos” festival they held each year. Problem with that idea is that it’s a myth as well. San Clemente has no history like San Juan Capistrano. It was a real estate development begun in the 1920s to look like an old Spanish town. The alleged first baptism of Native Americans in California (the “Cristianitos” in the name) didn’t take place in town, but in the creek to the south near San Onofre.

Just like religions and other faith-based systems that don’t like the facts to get in the way of their comforting and cherished ideas, I doubt whether people (especially the boosters) would want to know the truth anyway. Occasionally a reporter has the temerity to mention it, but that doesn’t seem to matter to most people. It would sure get in the way of making a big profit off all those tourists each March.

19 Responses to ““When the swallows come back to Capistrano””

  1. LovleAnjel says:

    Spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees, and Punxatawny Phil doesn’t actually wake up to go looking for his shadow. This is one of those delightful old touristy things that’s even better because it’s so obviously untrue when you go there to watch. A good excuse to have fun. At least people take Phil with their tongues firmly implanted in their cheeks.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      True–but most local festivals (like the Gilroy Garlic Festival or the Rose Parade in Pasadena) have a basis in some local reality, or a long-standing tradition that makes sense. But the fake “Cristianitos festival” in San Clemente (a town with no long history), or the Swallow Festival (where the boosters won’t concede that they drove away the swallows with their development) is not tongue-in-cheek, but more of a con job…

  2. Canman says:

    The picture appears to show barn swallows and a barn swallow nest instead of cliff swallows.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Indeed it does! But the birds are cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota), who treat mission walls and bridges like natural cliffs. Goes to show how ornithologically illiterate these people are…

  3. MadScientist says:

    It’s a tough cookie to swallow. I’m reminded of essays by Mark Twain that speak of such festivals. Come to think of it, Twain even invented one – The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County – it’s even situated in California.

  4. We used to laugh about this as kids (I live about 2 minutes away from Mission SJC). Once a year, the skies darken… :-D

    • Donald Prothero says:

      In my family living in SJC, it’s “once a year, the town becomes gridlocked, people park everywhere illegally, and you don’t want to even go out your door”

  5. RandyC says:

    Check out the southwest entrance to the Macy’s at the Laguna Hills Mall in a month or two. It has a big concrete overhang that usually has a lot of swallow nests. The swallows make a big mess, but the stores are not allowed to disturb the nests.

  6. David Hewitt says:

    I recall a feature on CBS Sunday Morning, back in the early 1980s (I think), on the return of the swallows. About four birds showed up, and the interviewer asked, “Is that it?” The local swallow expert replied, “That’s it.” Marketing is a wonderful thing.

  7. Janet Camp says:

    In Milwaukee we have the annual “Return of the Harley’s” Every hundred years, this gets REALLY BIG and clogs the entire city with the infernal noise machines.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      So does the annual Sturgis, South Dakota, festival, which is swamped with bikers…

  8. gwen says:

    Thanks for the story. I live in the Ca Bay Area, and we have Cliff swallows here. Your story explains to me why there are none (or few) near my home in San Leandro, but once you start driving down 580 toward Dublin, you start seeing the nests under the bridges. I always enjoy watching them in the dusk.

  9. Lance Moody says:

    Great story!

    You title reminded me of another 1940s song, an awful song that Jack Benny’s character penned and hoped would be a big hit. He tried to get many of his musical friends but strangely they never saw the potential.

    When you say ‘I beg your pardon’
    Then I’ll come back to you
    When you ask me to forgive you I’ll return
    Like the swallows in Cerreno return to Capistrano
    For you my heart will always
    always always always yearn
    When you say that you are sorry
    then I will understand
    ‘Neath the harvest moon we’ll pledge our love anew
    Oh my darling though were parted
    Come back to whence we started
    And sweetheart then I’ll come back to you

    The four “always” we’re seen by many as overkill but the “whence” always got the biggest negative reaction.


  10. Michael J. Knitter, MD says:

    I appreciate the truth.
    The truth that the cliff swallows need a place to call home and a place where food and water support their life cycle.

    There are human orphans made by our current culture that also need a home. The human zygote frozen in labs that are interested in birth and completing their destiny.

    “Oh my darling though were parted, Come back to whence we started, and Sweetheart then I’ll come back to you”
    Reminds me of the Love God has for Us.
    Perhaps if we state our repentance, God will return to us and we will be able to make home for Our Nation’s Orphans.
    To complete their life we put on hold.

    • FELIX DIAZ says:

      I found the article to be very informative, I was enjoying the comments ’till I read Michael J Knitter’s religious bomb

  11. Amy (T) says:

    “Apparently, there are no biologists or birders down there to set them straight.”

    sorry I’m late on this, but, actually, there is one, Dr. Charles Brown. My boss, and “cliff swallow expert” (he wrote the book on them, has studied them in NE going on 30 years now, any citations related to cliff swallows usually include his name, or should, often he gets plagiarized because he’s written so much about them). The organizers do know there are no swallows, Dr. Brown has gone out the last 3 years to give a lecture during the festivities, and has an open invitation to continue his annual lecture. He is also trying to advise them on how to bring the swallows back (which is unlikely, for reasons you point out), but the mission does want swallows to come back. He’s suggested artificial nests, but because of the historic building, they don’t want to glue or screw something on to it (I think they’ve tried some off the main building). Now they are going to try bird calls. There’s really little to be done, most everyone knows this, but I’ll give the mission credit for trying. It is funny, because March 19 is really too early for the birds, but it might be nice if they could get some in during April, when the bird residents are actually probably looking for nesting spots. Dr. Brown has pointed many of the things the mission (and their gift shop) got/get wrong, and they are making an effort to change it. He’s suggested doing a little “field trip” for those who attend the lecture to an actual swallow colony. Here’s an OC register story from this year, which they interviewed Dr. Brown:

    Sorry to go on, cliff swallows are sort of personal since I work with “captain swallow” himself and the birds. I’ve never made it out to the San Juan festivities (never actually knew of it until I started working for Charles), but hope to sometime in the future. Next year I really hope you and the other locals who commented will go to his talk:

    he is happy to talk cliff swallows any time and is very nice and open to questions!

    • josie says:

      Amy T –bird calls and artificial nests probably won’t do much until they have their food source back (as you know I’m sure). Are there any plans to reclaim the any of the riparian habitat and get it back to producing the bugs the birds like to eat?

      It’s sort of a Field of Dreams scenario –“If you build it they will come” Swallows are good at that. It would be really great if the natural habitat were given a boost.

      I have a fondness for swallows myself; my graduate work was on Rough-winged Swallows. When I moved out here a few years ago I was a bit disappointed to realize that the SJC swallow folklore didn’t have much current truth.

      • Amy (T) says:

        well, the eves are a plus, cliff swallows actually prefer the artificial eves over their natural cliffs. The mission probably has enough bugs to support a couple nesting pairs. Charles said there is a small field on the missions land or nearby which they could feed, and plenty of dirt for mud nests, but it’s really not open enough to bring in the few stray cliff swallows who might fly by that area (in the last 3 years he’s gone out, last year was the only time he saw 1 cliff swallow fly overhead, but, he’s only there March 19, which is too early to have much activity). They’re unlikely to get even a pair, and no way are they ever going to get established colony with more than a few pairs. I think they really just want swallows to come around so they can be seen there again. That is a possibility, but it would only be a lone few, and probably not in march. Charles likes the festivities because it’s a way to promote conservation and get people interested in birds. It would be nice if they did a better job of promoting the correct identification of birds, and where you can find cliff swallows (which is everywhere across the mid to western US).

        Josie, if you live out there, you should try to go to his talk next year. You can talk swallows, and with actual knowledge on the topic!

  12. Chris says:

    Happy ‘Love Day’ everyone!!!