Bringing the Swallows back to Capistrano
by Nate Swick
Via DC Birding Blog
Of the various intersections betweeen birds and popular culture, the Cliff Swallows of San Juan Capistrano Mission of Orange County, California, celebrated in song and verse, are undoubtedly one of the most famous.
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.
But for the last several years, those swallows have been missing from the mission grounds. It's not as if they've disappeared completely, only that they've found nesting sites elsewhere, on overpasses, eaves of homes, and other, less scenic, sites around the now sprawling suburb of Los Angeles.
But the memory of the swallows dies hard, and the caretakers of the Mission have been working hard to convince the reticent birds to return to their former haunts. An iPod connected to an elaborate speaker system has been blasting the mating call on a playback loop up to 6 hours a day in an attempt to bring the birds back for good.
This effort is so far unsuccessful, but with a cottage industry built up around the swallow's annual return to the Mission, it is hoped that the swallows will come back to Capistrano once more.