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Gulp! The swallows don't visit San Juan Capistrano much anymore

March 22, 2009|Paloma Esquivel
  • Mike Gastelum rings the bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Gastelum is the grandson of the previous bell ringer, Paul Arbiso. The bells have been rung over and over this week, but the fabled swallows haven't made an appearance.
Mike Gastelum rings the bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Gastelum… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

There was a time, people here say, when the swallows swarmed San Juan Capistrano in the days just before winter gave way to spring. Every year, locals say, the white-bellied birds filled the sky like a rain cloud. They returned to their nests in the old adobe mission as church bells rang, heralding their arrival.

But the mission bells have rung over and over during this year's Festival of the Swallows, which ends today, and the tiny birds just won't make an appearance. Truth is, they've hardly been seen at the mission for years.

Perhaps, some skeptics say, the birds' return was never quite as it was described in lore. There's little scientific evidence that cliff swallows ever migrate to the exact same spot year after year.

Others say the birds' nests were knocked down a decade ago during preservation work at the mission. Avian experts attribute the dearth of swallows to a general reduction in all bird numbers across Southern California -- the inevitable result of building homes and shopping centers as far as the eye can see.

Yet the miracle of the swallows' return to Mission San Juan Capistrano every spring remains undiminished in this historic city.

"When you think of the old legends of California, you think of the swallows," said Lisa Paul, 51, who drove from San Francisco for San Juan's yearly celebration marking the birds' return. "I had this image that flocks and flocks of them just blotted out the sky."

Over the years, locals have tried desperately to lure the birds back. They consulted with experts, installed ceramic nests and played recorded bird songs, all for nothing. The small numbers of swallows that now make their way to south Orange County have come to prefer the eaves of a nearby college, the nooks and crannies of shopping malls, and the spaces underneath Interstate 5, which cuts the city in two.

In 2000, Charles R. Brown, a professor of biological science at the University of Tulsa and an expert on cliff swallows, visited the mission and offered a few ideas to help bring the birds back -- including installing ceramic nests, a technique that has had limited success over a few years.

The mission put up a few ceramic nests but then took them down because they were not historically authentic, said Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, the mission's executive director.

Still, the weeklong festival marking the birds' return must go on.

A few swallows were spotted earlier in the week by some eagle-eyed festival-goers, but the birds quickly flew away. By the time the festival ends, it's pretty much a given the greatest number of nesting swallows will be the dozens of brightly painted tin ones packed up and sold as Christmas ornaments.

But, as the locals will tell you, there's always next year.


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