Happy Belated Swallows Day! On March 24, San Juan Capistrano celebrated the annual Fiesta de las Golondrinas or Festival of the Swallows. Timed to occur on or around March 19, the observance of St. Joseph’s Day, the festival honors a momentous seasonal event, a harbinger of spring in full bloom. St. Joseph’s Day is the day the swallows return to Capistrano.
The Fiesta de la Golondrinas celebrates the legend of the return of the swallows to the San Juan Capistrano Mission, located in a small city of the same name in southern Orange County, California. The following account of how the swallows first came to call the Mission home was written by Father St. John O’Sullivan, Pastor of Mission San Juan Capistrano from 1910-33:
One day, while walking through town, Fr. O’Sullivan saw a shopkeeper, broomstick in hand, knocking down the conically shaped mud swallow nests that were under the eaves of his shop. The birds were darting back and forth through the air squealing over the destruction of their homes.
“What in the world are you doing?” Fr. O’Sullivan asked.
“Why, these dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!” the shopkeeper responded.
“But where can they go?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he replied, slashing away with his pole. “But they’ve no business here, destroying my property”
Fr. O’Sullivan then said, “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”
The very next morning, the padre discovered the swallows busy building their nests outside the newly restored sacristy of Father Serra’s Church…
Someone of a more scientific bent might dispute this explanation for the swallows’ fondness for San Juan Capistrano, but the actual migration of these birds is hardly in doubt. The Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) is quite a snowbird. It winters in Goya, Argentina, some 6,000 miles south of the United States. But on or around March 19, a flock of swallows invariably descends upon the Mission San Juan Capistrano, the oldest building in California. There they remain in vast numbers until October 23, known as the Day of San Juan, when the swirling flock begins its long journey south.
The return of the swallows is one of the most cherished and festive spring migratory events in all of North America. How many other birds are greeted with their own parade? The Swallows Day Parade is the largest non-motorized parade in the United States, marked by displays of equestrian acumen and spring finery, as well as, hopefully, swallows.
As it happens, I saw a flock of several hundred swallows, the first big flock of the spring, over the freeway here in Pasadena last Wednesday, right between March 19 and March 24. No ID as to species, alas, since they were high up and traffic was actually moving for a change, but apparently they were right on time.