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Up The Road: The Swallows Of Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano
© Tim Buss 2012
Two bells, Mission San Juan Capistrano.

At the first sign of aging in the southern state, a bulldozer or plastic surgeon often gets called in—not true at Orange County’s Mission San Juan Capistrano, where preservation is the holy grail. As for the mission’s returning swallows, Father Junípero Serra started the story. A schmaltzy song carried it forward.

Thanks to Leon Rene’s 1930s tune When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano, every year on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day, the whole town celebrates cliff swallows as they return from their annual migration to Argentina. [1] The Inkspots version still rocks. Glenn Miller’s big-band rendition also endures. [2] But Bing Crosby sang it too. And Pat Boone. Even Elvis.

Everybody but the cliff swallows, which have their own song. [3] Identified by squared-off cleft tails, dedicated to nesting under overhangs and bridges, the swallows first officially came back in 1776—the year the United States became the United States. Serra recorded the event in his diary, which is why it’s historic. Someone wrote it down.

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Sharon Molerus
Mission San Juan Capistrano, founded in 1775.

Nowadays, though, on March 19 tourists far outnumber the swallows, which never were religious about that day anyway. Ornithologists say swallows return around the spring equinox, March 19 being close enough, though “scouts” show up much earlier. Modern life has piled on challenges. Too much hubbub and too many people scare off cliff swallows, for one thing. Earthquakes—and earthquake repairs, at the mission—damaged hundreds of nests, for another, discouraging still more birds, which prefer their hive-like mud homes move-in-ready.

But Capistrano’s cliff swallows are returning again, enticed by delicacies such as ladybugs and green lacewing larvae, and new prefab swallow nests. Plus, now humans keep busy elsewhere the week of March 19, at the Fiesta de las Golondrinas—with food, fun runs, and a parade with costumed people and pets.

Mission Bells
Randy Heinitz
Mission bells and fountain, Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Once “the jewel of the missions,” San Juan Capistrano is still impressive, especially the ruins of the Great Stone Church—started in 1797, finished in 1806, and then destroyed by an earthquake in 1812. To see what the old church looked like, visit the soaring, Spanish-Renaissance “new church,” with stunning interior artwork. Next door, and still in use, is the 1777 Serra Chapel, the state’s oldest building.

Then head to Dana Point, on the coast, where Richard Henry Dana, Jr. put ashore in the early 1800s, bringing mission supplies to trade for tanned cowhides. He tells the tale in the classic memoir Two Years Before the Mast. Imagine Dana’s trips on board the Spirit of Dana Point, a painstaking re-creation of those speedy privateer schooners that powered the American revolution. The nonprofit Ocean Institute also offers Bioluminescence Night Cruises in summers, to spy on those little sea creatures that glow in the dark.

Until next time, when we finally get to Disneyland, this is Kim Weir for Up the Road.

Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:

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Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.