The cliff swallows, the birds which put San Juan Capistrano on the map, have snubbed the mission in recent years. The mission has tried drawing them back with food. It has tried shelter. Now, it's trying seduction.
LOS ANGELES — A bird’s call rings endlessly inside the adobe walls at Mission San Juan Capistrano as tourists wander through the courtyard — ablaze with flowers in full bloom — and a handful of fourth-graders snap pictures and take notes for class projects.
Hardly the sweet song of the nightingale, the call is more like the croak of a distressed frog — or, by an expert’s own description, a “rusty, squeaky door.”
It’s a last-ditch effort to lure back the cliff swallows, the birds which put San Juan Capistrano on the map but which have snubbed the mission in recent years. The mission has tried drawing them back with food. It has tried shelter. Now, it’s trying seduction.
The birds, with their orange rumps and white foreheads, once arrived in such numbers that their swarms looked like storm clouds in the spring sky, a migration that inspired songs, paintings and a yearly parade.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
But urbanization and disruptions from a preservation effort at the church have chased them away, and the once-familiar cliff swallow’s mating cry is no longer heard.
The noise now is from a speaker hooked to an iPod, tucked away in the bushes behind a statue of the mission’s founder, Fray Junipero Serra. The recording of the swallow’s mating call plays on a continuous loop, up to six hours a day, five days a week.
For this latest, and perhaps final, attempt to bring the swallows home to the majestic ruins of their Great Stone Church, mission workers turned to a scientist from Oklahoma who volunteered to help them.
“We owe the community the effort; the community of San Juan Capistrano is integrated with the swallows,” Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, executive director of the mission since 2003, says as she strolls the courtyard. “It’s not an act of desperation.”
Moments later, though, her eyes well up as she embraces a colleague.
She thinks she spotted a swallow.
Town tied to swallows
You may not encounter swallows on the mission grounds, but in one way or another, they’re everywhere in San Juan Capistrano.
A puff of decorative swallows, frozen in flight, hang off the sound wall along Interstate 5, and shops around town always have swallow jewelry and knickknacks in stock.
“This town is very connected with the swallows,” said Monique Rea, an artist who has lived in San Juan Capistrano for 40 years and who paints the birds. “It’s a big thing. They don’t just come here — they like other places, too — but San Juan is the home of the swallows.”
For decades, the city welcomed back the birds each St. Joseph’s Day with a parade that grew to include several hundred horses. The parade continues, but without many swallows to greet.
For them, the mission has lost its luster.
“The city kept growing and growing,” said Don Tryon, archivist for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. “The swallows had a heck of a lot more opportunities to put their nests anywhere they wanted.”
Before this city of about 35,000 people gained shopping centers and traffic, there was simply the mission, with its chapel, school and Great Stone Church.
The cross-shaped cathedral’s high stone walls, badly damaged during an earthquake in the early 1800s, rose like a cliff amid the rolling meadows — the ideal place for cliff swallows to establish colonies of their gourd-shaped nests.
The birds would fly to Argentina each autumn and return in the spring. Father St. John O’Sullivan, pastor from 1919 to 1933, noticed they tended to come back around St. Joseph’s Day, March 19 — his birthday. He wrote of them in his book “Capistrano Nights.”
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.
All the mission bells will ring/
The chapel choir will sing/
The happiness you’ll bring/
Will live in my memory/
When the swallows come back to Capistrano/
That’s the day I pray that you’ll come back to me
Years after the mission had to clear away colonies of nests to stabilize and preserve the ruins — and after urbanization had made the sanctuary’s walls no longer seem so tall — mission officials say they are asked almost daily: When will the swallows come back to Capistrano?
That’s when they turned to the expert: Charles Brown, a biologist at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, has spent 30 years researching the cliff swallow.
Brown, who had ties to the mission after lecturing there in the past, acknowledged that his experiment with speakers is a longshot. “If the cliff swallows return, it’s probably going to stay a marginal population,” he said. “The landscape isn’t suitable for them anymore. It will be a struggle to keep them there.”
Plenty of winged creatures dance through the warm air on a recent afternoon at the mission: mockingbirds, house finches, woodpeckers, bees.
But late in the day, after the fourth-graders are gone, and with a few remaining visitors wandering the grounds, Lawrence-Adams spies a dash of orange on a sparrow-sized bird.
“Seriously!” she says. “This thing is working!”
No bells ring, no choir sings. Only a lusting squawk from a portable speaker can be heard as the bird dives and darts before finally drifting away.