I am not sure where I first heard about the birds returning to Capistrano. It might have been from an old movie called
“TheBells of Capistrano,” with Gene Autry. Hey, what can I say…I like old movies…although that one was made before my time. In case you have never heard of it, San Juan, Capistrano is famous for the annual migration of cliff swallows that are said to return on March first, St. Joseph’s Day every year.
So several years ago when a swarm of swallows began swooping across my yard, I was both enthralled and mystified. This was the first time I had ever seen this spectacle in person, not ever having been to Capistrano myself.
Even though I had no idea why, I felt honored that they had chosen my yard in which to soar and dive as they caught the small insects flying in the air. And this was not a fleeting affair across the yard. It lasted for hours. Their flight path swept across the entire length of the yard, where they would zip quickly around a tree that sits in the back, and around again to the front, passing by my picture window. I grabbed my camera and took this video (can be seen below). Although it is a bit grainy and brief, it gives a sense of the number of birds there were (at least 30 or more) and how fast they were flying.
shot from my picture window, May 5, 2011
I thought their visitation was a chance occurrence and was sure these intrepid callers would not return. But amazingly they did. Last year I was treated to another display of this fascinating pageantry of nature.
The Mission states that,” 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 the 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.”
Unfortunately in recent years, the birds have not been returning as they once had. To counter this, Dr. Charles Brown at the mission began what was described as a “vocalization project” to entice the birds to the mission once more, apparently placing speakers behind a statue that play a courtship song. When the birds hear this, they come to investigate (and court apparently).
As for why they really return to certain areas year after year, apparently has to do with nesting and migration patterns. David Winkler, a Cornell University scientist who has studied swallows for over 20 years, having written numerous scientific papers on the birds holds the birds in high regards. He states one reason why he likes to study the birds is “they are one of nature’s miracles.”Tree swallows, which is what I believe were the birds in my yard, are said to range from Canada all the way to Panama, where their flight patterns include Michigan. Winkler goes on to say “they tend to hold on through whatever hardships may arise…“They have a ton of gumption and a lot of character,” Wink says. “They are tough birds, and they don’t hold a grudge. They don’t abandon their nests.” For the full article and information on many types of birds, see “The Tree Swallow Farmer.”
Miracle event or migration patterns? I don’t know. Maybe a little of both. It’s all how you want to look at it. But no matter how you look at it, if they return again this coming spring, it will definitely be an interesting event to witness. I don’t think I am going to build a mission on my property or anything, although I should put up a bird feeder (the old one broke).
What I liked is how Dr. Winkler said the birds held on no matter what, had strong characters, and didn’t hold grudges. Maybe they could teach us all a little something. Just saying.