Swal­lows re­turn­ing

Largely ab­sent for more than a decade, San Juan Capis­trano’s swal­lows are wing­ing their way back.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - MEGHANN M. CUNIFF Cuniff is a con­trib­u­tor to Times Com­mu­nity News.

San Juan Capis­trano’s birds were driven away by devel­op­ment, but now they’re slowly com­ing back.

Devel­op­ment pushed the fa­mous swal­lows away from their tra­di­tional spring haven at Mis­sion San Juan Capis­trano. That left tourists search­ing — mostly in vain — for the city’s most fa­mously re­li­able visi­tors.

Now, five years af­ter mis­sion ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Mechelle Lawrence Adams launched an ef­fort to woo the swal­lows back to the his­toric land­mark, she and her staff are cel­e­brat­ing.

They’ve dis­cov­ered two nests of swal­lows at the mis­sion in the last month, and more have been spot­ted in flight. That’s fu­eled hope that the birds will re-em­brace a mi­gra­tion rou­tine in­tro­duced to the world by Fa­ther John O’Sul­li­van, who cared for the mis­sion from 1910 un­til his death in 1933.

“We feel like new moth­ers. It’s ridicu­lous we’re so ex­cited,” Lawrence Adams said in a Face­book Live video from the Great Stone Church, where there is a nest of cliff swal­lows. Roughed-wing swal­lows also are nest­ing near the Serra Chapel. She called the nests “a mir­a­cle to us.”

“We’ve been able to do the com­mu­nity a fa­vor, and that’s re­turned the swal­lows here,” Lawrence Adams said.

Me­gan Dukett, the mis­sion’s ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram di­rec­tor, said of­fi­cials hope the new res­i­dents will have lots of ba­bies and make this their home.

Swal­lows had largely dis­ap­peared from the mis­sion when Lawrence Adams took over in 2003 be­cause of long-term ren­o­va­tion ef­forts at the Great Stone Church, she said. She took ac­tion af­ter re­al­iz­ing “no one in the com­mu­nity was even do­ing any­thing about it,” she said.

In­stead, most dis­cus­sions about swal­lows in San Juan Capis­trano cen­tered on whether they should be de­picted as fork-tailed or flat-tailed, Lawrence Adams said.

The swal­lows that tra­di­tion­ally re­turn to the city are cliff swal­lows, which have flat tails, but much of the swal­low imagery in San Juan Capis­trano show fork tails, which be­long to the barn swal­low.

“Those side dis­cus­sions were re­ally not that im­por­tant. What was im­por­tant was, how do we re­turn the fa­vor of mak­ing the mis­sion a place for home?” Lawrence Adams said.

In 2012, the mis­sion en­listed Charles Brown, a Tulsa Univer­sity pro­fes­sor and or­nithol­o­gist who be­gan broad­cast­ing ta­pere­corded calls of cliff swal­lows at the mis­sion in hopes of at­tract­ing nesters.

Mis­sion staff spot­ted a nest in 2013, but the birds re­mained scarce. Then last year, mis­sion of­fi­cials in­stalled a 15-by-15-foot tem­po­rary wall on the east side of the Great Stone Church with about 30 plas­ter nests de­signed by Brown.

It re­mains to­day, near a real nest spot­ted weeks ago.

Brown said in a mis­sion news re­lease that vo­cal­iza­tion and the nests could have at­tracted this year’s nesters, but the rough­winged swal­lows prob­a­bly played a big­ger role. They are soli­tary birds that nest in walls and crevices, Brown said, but their pres­ence could have at­tracted the mis­sion’s tra­di­tional cliff swal­lows.

San Juan Capis­trano res­i­dent Jan Siegel, a mis­sion vol­un­teer and his­tory en­thu­si­ast, said the story of the swal­lows was part of a mar­ket­ing ef­fort by O’Sul­li­van. He started the an­nual Re­turn of the Swal­lows cel­e­bra­tion to co­in­cide with St. Joseph’s Day, which was also his birth­day, and Los An­ge­les jour­nal­ists broad­cast from the cel­e­bra­tion in the 1930s.

The swal­lows’ spec­tac­u­lar re­turn be­came na­tional news.

“That was it. From that point on, it was con­sid­ered ab­so­lute,” Siegel said.

San Juan Capis­trano’s swal­lows so­lid­i­fied their place in pop­u­lar cul­ture when vo­cal group the Ink Spots recorded Leon Rene’s “When the Swal­lows Come Back to Capis­trano” in 1940. The song was cov­ered many times, and ac­tor Jim Car­rey ’s char­ac­ter in­fa­mously re­ferred to the “salmon of Capis­trano” when de­scrib­ing Aspen, Colo., in the 1994 movie “Dumb and Dum­ber.”

The city’s swal­lows con­tinue to be so widely known that writ­ers world­wide use them as an anal­ogy for rep­e­ti­tion, tra­di­tion and re­cur­rence.

A news­pa­per in China in Septem­ber com­pared them to on­go­ing com­plaints about de­clin­ing English stan­dards in Hong Kong’s English-lan­guage me­dia, and an Ok­la­homa news­pa­per in March in­voked them when de­scrib­ing re­peated leg­isla­tive at­tempts to in­crease teacher salaries.

Lawrence Adams said she’s proud to be part of the tra­di­tion.

“I’ve had peo­ple make fun of the ef­fort,” she said. “Now I can truly feel like af­ter 14 years, we are re­turn­ing this in­vest­ment of clean spirit and en­ergy and legacy.”

On May 16, a split San Juan Capis­trano City Coun­cil re­jected a pro­posal to iden­tify swal­lows as a po­ten­tial vic­tim of a change in flight pat­terns at John Wayne Air­port.

Mayor Kerry Fer­gu­son and Coun­cil­woman Pam Pat­ter­son wanted to men­tion the mi­gra­tion of cliff swal­lows in a com­plaint to the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion about a change in reg­u­la­tions that’s send­ing more planes over south Orange County at lower alti­tude.

The let­ter asks the FAA for clar­i­fi­ca­tion “re­gard­ing the po­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects of the ini­tia­tives on res­i­dents and wildlife in the City of San Juan Capis­trano.”

Their col­leagues ques­tioned the ne­ces­sity of spec­i­fy­ing wildlife to in­clude swal­lows, with Coun­cil­man Derek Reeve im­ply­ing that the birds have a big­ger rep­u­ta­tion than re­al­ity sup­ports.

“We’ve got a song, but I don’t know if we re­ally can ... ” Reeve said, trail­ing off. “I’ll just leave it at that.”

Fer­gu­son said Brown, the swal­lows ex­pert, told her that the birds fly at about 500 feet and “aren’t gen­er­ally way up there in the at­mos­phere,” but in­clud­ing the birds couldn’t hurt.

Coun­cil­man Brian Mary­ott and Mayor Pro Tem Ser­gio Farias sided with Reeve, and the coun­cil ap­proved the let­ter with no men­tion of the swal­lows. Pat­ter­son voted against it.

“There’s many cities that have in com­mon the com­plaint that it’s caus­ing ad­di­tional noise or that sort of thing, but we are the ones that have the swal­lows com­ing back ev­ery year,” Pat­ter­son said.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

SWAL­LOWS had largely dis­ap­peared from Mis­sion San Juan Capis­trano in 2003 be­cause of ren­o­va­tion at the Great Stone Church. But nests have been found at the mis­sion, and more birds have been spot­ted in f light.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

A NORTH­ERN rough-winged swal­low f lies from a crevice at the mis­sion’s Great Stone Church in 2012.

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

CLIFF SWAL­LOWS like these nest at the Great Stone Church. Their re­turn has been called a mir­a­cle.

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