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.