Swallows on a Mission

Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded November 1, 1776, by Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan Priest. After being seriously damaged in a deadly 1812 earthquake, the mission was never fully rebuilt.

Imagine you are in San Juan Capistrano, California, on March 19. The mission bells are ringing. Crowds of reporters and tourists jam the streets. Mariachis play. A parade marches. A huge fiesta is underway. And everyone's eyes are on the skies. What's up? The cliff swallows have returned to the Mission San Juan Capistrano, and it's the city's biggest yearly celebration. Here's the story, and some activities you'll enjoy.

The Legend of the Swallows

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.

A Good Place for Cliff Swallows
The Swallow celebration began centuries ago when Mission padres observed that the birds returned each year on or about St. Joseph's Day on the church calendar, March 19. Thousands of orange-tailed migrants fly in to reclaim their old nests in the ancient arches and walls of the Mission, and to raise their young in the valley. The swallows of San Juan Capistrano made the Mission and the city world famous.

The Capistrano birds are Cliff Swallows, which have probably been returning to the area for centuries. They transferred their nests to the eaves of the Mission when it was built near two rivers. This was an ideal spot for swallows to nest and raise their young. Billions of insects necessary to their survival thrived in the open fields and wetlands near the riverbeds. And the swallows could get plenty of mud for building their nests.

But today San Juan Capistrano is a growing city. The swallows have found more eaves to nest under, but their food supply is dwindling as humans take over the wetlands and riverbeds for businesses and homes. Now the swallows are nesting farther from the center of town, and visitors no longer see clouds of swallows descending on the Mission as they once did.

Still, the swallows are Capistrano's most famous citizens. The birds are not only well known, but well loved and protected here. The city is by law a bird sanctuary.

Every year around the Day of San Juan (October 23), the famous cliff swallows of San Juan Capistrano swirl into the sky and head back to their wintering grounds in Argentina, 6,000 miles south. And they faithfully return every spring in mid March. Will the tradition continue? You'll want to check the news every March 19!

Try This!
  • Listen. In 1939, songwriter Leon Rene was listening to the radio one morning when he heard the announcer say the swallows were about to arrive at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. He got the idea for a song and wrote "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano." The song was a hit. Find a recording of the song and listen as a class.
  • When the swallows come back to Capistrano
    That's the day you promised to come back to me.
    When you whispered farewell in Capistrano
    Twas the day the swallows flew out to the sea.

  • Discuss or Journal. Birds have often symbolized important human emotions, such as love, longing, cheerfulness, steadfastness, fierceness, strength, and friendliness. For example, cranes symbolize longevity, loyalty, and devotion in some cultures--perhaps because cranes have long life expectancies, mate for life, and sometimes seem to grieve when they lose a mate. In this song, why do you think the songwriter chose the Swallows of Capistrano for his theme? What quality do swallows symbolize in the song? Do you think this symbol is entirely fanciful, or is it based on something in swallow biology?

  • Think and Express. Can you think of a human quality your favorite bird might be used to symbolize? Make and illustrate a card around that quality and send a message to someone you care about.