The Swallows of San Juan Capistrano

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Back from winter vacation in Argentina

by Gerry Brown
Interior View of The Mission at San Juan Capistrano

The interior of the San Juan Capistrano mission.

Swallows and Other Birds Book Illustration

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They're on their way.

The famous cliff swallows of San Juan Capistrano that leave town every year in a swirling mass near the Day of San Juan (October 23), are returning from their winter vacation spot 6,000 miles south in Goya, Corrientes, Argentina.

They land at the mission in San Juan, California, on or around St. Joseph's Day, March 19, to the ringing bells of the old church and a crowd of visitors from all over the world who are in town awaiting their arrival and celebrating with a huge fiesta as well as a parade.

Seeking Solace in the Mission

Legend has it that the swallows took refuge in the Mission San Juan Capistrano from an irate innkeeper who destroyed their muddy nests. The swallows return to the old ruined church each spring knowing they will be protected within the mission's walls. In fact, the city has taken their safety seriously passing an ordinance against destroying their nests.

So-called "scout swallows" precede the main flock each year by a few days but the majority of the small birds usually arrives on the 19th and begins rebuilding the mud nests that cling to the ruins of the old stone church and throughout the Capistrano Valley.

The Oldest Building in California

The mission, originally built from 1776–1806, was seriously damaged in 1812 by a deadly earthquake and was never fully rebuilt. It is the seventh in a chain of 21 California Missions all supposedly separated by the distance of a day's walk. The Mission was named for the Crusader, Saint John of Capistrano, who had taken the name of his Italian birthplace. Padre Junipero Serra was a Spanish Franciscan priest who founded the church on November 1, 1776, and the adobe Serra Chapel section of the mission has been rebuilt and it is now the oldest building in California still in use today.

The mission is located near two rivers and was an ideal spot for the swallows to nest for years because of the abundance of the insects on which they feed. The reduction in numbers of the insects, largely as a result of the development of the area, has caused some of the swallows to locate further from the center of town and explains why there are no longer huge clouds of swallows descending on the Mission. Still, it's quite a sight.

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