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Paul Dean

An Old Myth Comes Back to Capistrano

March 14, 1987|Paul Dean

If there is a survival instinct stronger than any ecosystem it is the determination of tourist boards to sustain a myth.

Punxsutawney Phil (not to be confused with New Jersey pretender Woodrow K. Chuck) has hogged Groundhog Day as our undomesticated ambassador of spring since 1887.

In reality, admits Bill Null, a spokesman for the Punxsutawney (Pa.) Chamber of Commerce, Phil spends his year in a cozy enclosure near the children's library. With Barney, his backup and heir apparent.

Each Feb. 2, Phil (or Barney) is carried in a cage to Gobblers Knob and slipped into an electrically heated burrow. Then he's prodded out at the chosen hour of midwinter. The media does the rest.

On Wednesday, the swallows come back to San Juan Capistrano. Whether by ornithological clock, divine cue or Amtrak schedule from San Diego, they always arrive on St. Joseph's Day, March 19.

This year, the coming will again capstone the town's annual Fiesta de las Golondrinas, its polo exhibitions, Saturday's parade, today's 10K run, its celebration of heritage from today through next weekend.

Mission bells will ring (mission eaves have been the swallow's summer home since Father Serra built the place 200 years ago) and Rafael Rene will sing "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano" (his late father wrote it in 1939) and disc jockeys will again make calls from Des Moines and Belfast (anything geared to the soft and untroubled is good radio in Belfast, maybe even in Des Moines) and the legend will enlarge.

Truth is . . . swallows can't tell the difference between St. Joseph's Day or St. Patrick's Day and they have been dribbling into Capistrano for weeks. Even in days when there might have been something to chirp about (in the '40s when, according to brittle newspaper clippings, arriving swallows "darkened the skies") the birds were best counted by the hundreds.

"Today we're talking dozens," acknowledged Dick Landy, director of the mission's visitor center. "Only two new nests were built at the mission last year. You'll find more swallows at the May Co. store in Mission Viejo."

Brutally put, the swallows of Capistrano are a fallacy. Oh, they nest there. Also in San Clemente and Dana Point and Laguna Niguel. These communities, unfortunately, weren't blessed with missions and romantic notions.

According to those within Capistrano's inner sanctum of bird watchers, there's even an unwritten law protecting the lore: Nobody must question Wednesday's first sighting by official watcher and mission bell bonger Paul Arbiso, 91, even if he is tolling the bell for whomever reported what they thought they overheard from someone who might have seen a swallow.

John Johnson is a retired biology science teacher and ornithologist who lives in Corona del Mar. He knows why the swallows aren't coming back. Urban development.

"Swallows live entirely on insects that they eat while on the wing," he explained. "Cities are sterile places for insects so the swallows must go elsewhere to feed their young.

"They also need mud to create their bottle-like nests. But San Juan Creek and Valley are urbanized. Ponds and sources of nest building materials are disappearing. So the swallows are heading for their ancestral homes, the hills and cliffs of uninhabited canyons and agricultural areas like Chino."

This, of course, means that Capistrano's annual festival has become a tough act to swallow. On the other hand, Landy suggests, nobody really believes in Santa Claus. Yet our lives would be hollow without him.

"When we announce to the world that the swallows have come back we're saying that something good happened today," he says. "It's healing us. Irangate is forgotten for a while. Sure it's a myth. But we're not harming anyone."

Can't argue that. Besides, there's always the undisputed miracle to ponder: that annual rite of migration whereby, each March 19, from all over North America, thousands of tourists return to Capistrano.

For festival details, (714) 493-5911 or (714) 493-4700.

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