Earlier today, as every spring, the swallow returned to Kloster Zscheiplitz from their winter quarters in equatorial Africa. Let us welcome them with a bit of music and, indeed, a legend. This time from a distant Mission San Juan Capistrano, in California, USA.
Swallows of Capistrano
The miracle of the “Swallows” of Capistrano takes place each year at Mission San Juan Capistrano, on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day.
As the faithful little birds wing their way back to the most famous mission in California, the village of San Juan Capistrano takes on a fiesta air, and visitors from all parts of the world and all walks of life gather in great numbers to witness the “miracle” of the return of the swallows.
At dawn on St. Joseph’s Day, the little birds arrive and begin rebuilding their mud nests, which are clinging to the ruins of the Great Stone Church of San Juan Capistrano. The arches of the two story, vaulted Great Stone Church were left bare and exposed after the roof collapsed during the earthquake of 1812.
The Great Stone Church, said to be the largest and most ornate in any of the missions, now has a more humble destiny — that of housing the birds that St. Francis loved so well.
After the summer spent within the sheltered walls of the Old Mission in San Juan Capistrano, the swallows take flight again, and on the Day of San Juan, October 23rd, they leave after circling the Mission bidding farewell to the “Jewel of the Missions.”
Mission San Juan Capistrano, under the leadership of Father St. John O’Sullivan (1874-1933) began celebrating the return of the swallows on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19 in the early 1930s.
The number of cliff swallows nesting at the Mission has declined gradually over the years as urbanization simply gave the birds more options to build their nests. The Mission continues its quest to encourage the cliff swallows to nest again at the historic landmark like they had for decades.
In 2012, swallows expert Dr. Brown called for Phase I, the Vocalization Project, in which recorded courtship calls were played through a speaker on the Mission grounds to lure the cliff swallows that were flying overhead. According to Dr. Brown, evidence suggests the vocalization playbacks occasionally bring in passing cliff swallows that fly over the site but do not stay to nest.
In 2015, Dr. Brown recommended Phase II to increase the stimulus being presented to passing birds. This step necessitated the construction of a replica wall of man-made nests in a colony-like setting similar to one that existed on the Ruins of the Great Stone Church prior to its 1990s stabilization. Research shows that cliff swallows prefer to re-use existing nests. Once the birds notice the plaster nests and begin using them, spillover or additional settling birds may build nests on the walls of the Ruins of the Great Stone Church.
On March 19, 2016, Mission San Juan Capistrano unveiled Dr. Brown’s Phase II. Research has shown that cliff swallows prefer to re-use existing nests where possible, as this saves time and energy in building a nest from scratch. Once the birds notice the plaster nests and begin using them, spillover or additional settling birds likely will lead to them building nests on the walls of the ruins of the Great Stone Church. And once nests are built, the artificial wall arch will no longer be needed.
“Dr. Brown’s recommendation is not only an extension of his previous experiment we’ve been carrying out for the past few years, but also a great opportunity to re-introduce generations to the past,” said Mechelle Lawrence Adams, Executive Director of Mission San Juan Capistrano. “This reenactment allows us to show people the scope and extent of what it was like when the swallows were nesting here in abundance.
“While it’s an experiment rooted in science, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate history and to promote the historic journey of the swallows’ return from Goya, Argentina. We are grateful Dr. Brown is helping us make a difference in preserving the past, as well as celebrating it.”