The early rays of dawn begin to light the sky-- and before most of the community is awake swift energetic birds soar by. They are following the same migration path their ancestors have taken for eons. These are the swallows on their way to San Juan Capistrano--just in time to celebrate the arrival of spring.
This species of cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) is best know for their swift movements and their jug-shaped nests of mud and clay. Scout birds arrive a few days prior to the main flock, but the majority of the small birds usually reach their destination on the 19th. They quickly begin rebuilding the mud nests clinging under the eves and on the ruins of the old stone church and other buildings throughout the Capistrano Valley.
Centuries ago the San Juan Capistrano Mission padres noticed that the swallows returned consistently around St. Joseph’s Day. (On the church calendar this date is March 19th.) Today the village of San Juan Capistrano throws a fiesta to celebrate the annual event. Visitors arrive from around the world to gather in large numbers and officially welcome the return of the swallows.
The San Juan Capistrano mission was seventh in the chain of 21 California missions and was originally constructed in 1776–1806. It was named for the Crusader, Saint John of Capistrano, and founded by Padre Junipero Serra (a Spanish Franciscan priest) on November 1, 1776. The missions were constructed so each could be reached within a day’s walking distance of each other. This mission suffered serious damage during an earthquake in 1812, but was never completely rebuilt. Even so, the rebuilt adobe Serra Chapel section of the mission remains one of the oldest buildings still in use in California today.
The California mission has remained an ideal location for the swallows since the area provides an abundance of insects on which they feed. Unfortunately, this is changing as the number of insects has decreased due to development of the area. Many birds have begun to relocate and although the swallows remain an impressive sight, the huge numbers of swallows that once descending on the mission have decreased.
Animal behaviorist and California native, Diana L. Guerrero said, “Animals are constantly adapting and offer many opportunities for us to learn from them. Swallows are making adjustments based on changes in the environment. Now I see more here in the Big Bear Valley than I used to. They adapt to the environment and the seasons. If we keep an eye out and pay attention we can learn from them and adjust our efforts accordingly.” Guerrero talks at length about lessons we can learn from animals in her new book, What Animals Can Teach Us about Spirituality: Inspiring Lessons of Wild and Tame Creatures (SkyLight Paths Publishing).
According to Guerrero, “Swallows are a good example of tenacity. They set out on an incredible journey and travel about 15, 000 miles (24, 000 kilometers). If you have never witnessed a migration you should try and make it to the mission celebration this year.”
The swallows abandon their winter haven in Goya, Corrientes, Argentina to travel to the mission in San Juan Capistrano arriving on March 19th. They begin the return trip on the Day of San Juan. (On the church calendar this date is October 23rd.)