Every year on or around March 19th, on St. Joseph’s day, something beautiful happens at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano. The legendary swallows arrive as expected from Argentina. As these swallows find their way back to this place every year, many visitors from all corners of the world gather in massive numbers to witness their arrival amid celebrations.
Every year, a small group of birds known as scout swallows arrive a few days ahead of the main flock. The majority of the swallows arrive on the 19th and immediately start reconstructing the mud nests on the ruins of the old stone church, as well as other places in the Capistrano valley. This goes on till October when they migrate back to Argentina.
The Great Stone Church, that was once known as the most beautiful and largest of all the missions, has now been reduced to housing these birds that were dearly loved by St. Francis. The mission was first built in 1776 but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812 and was never rebuilt fully.
The San Juan Capistrano mission happens to be the seventh in a chain of 21 California missions, all which are separated by the distance of a day’s walk. The mission was named after Saint John of Capistrano, a crusader who had taken the name of his Italian birthplace.
Located near two rivers, the mission was a strategic place for the swallows to nest for many years due to the availability of insects to feed on. Today, the reduction in the number of insects, because of development in the area, has contributed to the relocation of the swallows further away from the town center. They prefer open areas so they move away when an area develops or becomes forested. This sheds some light as to why, for several years now, huge clouds of sparrows descending on the mission have not been seen.
Swallows prefer areas that are near food and water sources such as bridges near creeks. They also came to the mission because it was the biggest main building as well. It is said that when the Great Stone Church was stabilized, the preservationists did away with the nests that had been built over a long time. Therefore, these birds relocated to other areas of San Juan Capistrano.
The legend goes that these swallows had taken refuge in the mission to stay away from an irate innkeeper who destroyed their muddy nests. So, the swallows come back to the old ruined church every spring knowing that they will be safe within its walls.
Today, the city has taken the swallow’s safety seriously by passing an ordinance against destroying their nests. Moreover, efforts are being made to lure them back by constructing more artificial nests. This is a strategy to try and lure them back for good to the mission.
A temporary wall was put up on the east side of the ruins of the Great Stone Church that holds about 30 nests made from dental plaster underneath an archway. The ultimate goal is for the swallows to come and begin using these artificial nests and then they will spill over into the natural walls.