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What are the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 November 2016
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The Swallows of San Juan Capistrano are a famous flock of birds which have been associated with Mission San Juan Capistrano for centuries. The migratory birds tend to arrive and leave around the same time every year, following a regular schedule which has long been noted by the community around the Mission. As the swallows arrive and leave, a large festival is held to celebrate the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano and the heritage of the Mission, which is one of the oldest and best known in California.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of the earliest California missions, founded in 1776 by Franciscan Catholics. Junipero Serra himself presided over services there in a structure now known as “Serra's Church,” and the Mission complex included a distinctive cross-shaped stone church known as the Great Stone Church, which was severely damaged in an 1812 earthquake. Around the time of the earthquake, large numbers of swallows began to nest in the ruins of the church, and they soon became a topic of interest and comment.

It is probable that swallows had been traveling to and from the site long before humans colonized it, because the region is quite favorable for swallows. People undoubtedly saw the swallows as they settled the region and thought them unremarkable, but their decision to colonize part of the Mission certainly attracted attention, and soon they became known as the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano.

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According to the mythology of the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano, the birds first took shelter in the Mission when an innkeeper destroyed their nests. Since churches have long been considered places of sanctuary, people may have thought that their new nesting place was an apt choice. The swallows also happen to leave every year around 23 October, which is the Day of San Juan, and this fortuitous timing was undoubtedly noted. The swallows return each year around 19 March, St. Joseph's Day.

The swallows are so famous that Leon Rene wrote a song about them called “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” and the song has been covered by numerous musicians and bands. The annual festivals held for the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano are well known in Southern California, and they attract large numbers of visitors from outside the region. The swallows themselves, unfortunately, are at risk due to decreasing food supply as Southern California has become heavily settled. The community of San Juan Capistrano has declared itself a bird sanctuary, outlawing the destruction of swallow nests and encouraging residents to care for the region's famous birds.

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