The Swallows of San Juan Capistrano

Not far from San Diego, where my parents shifted from the Texas plains to sunny California during WW2 because my daddy had to go for training at the Naval base there, a mission point known as San Juan Capistrano nested in the nearby hills.

A legend had grown out of the centuries long migrations of swallows who consistently returned to the Mission from Argentina.  What spirit was stirred in their little breasts to make that trip twice a year?

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.

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 can find protection within the mission’s walls. In fact, recently 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 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.

Swallows and martins, or Hirundinidae, are a family of passerine birds found around the world on all continents except Antarctica. More at Wikipedia

Swallows may not bring emotions for the average American today, but when I was four, my mother gave me the chance of a lifetime, a chance to see swallows in action, and their flutter was embedded in me forever.

At times we may not understand the hearts’ reactions to words or sounds, but emotions from memories are stirred.  Experiences, events, even the smallest sounds from our early lives have become part of who we are.


What does the memory of swallows do for your day?

The Daily Prompt:


    1. This comment came a long time ago, but for some reason I am just. now seeing it. Thanks! I feel strongly about seasonal activity in the animal kingdom. For example: the hair growth on Galloway cattle is amazing. In particular, the bulls appear to be related to the American Bison during the cold winter months. Starlings swoop and swirl as they come to feed on the plains and in the fields. Of course the Canadian geese are always a marvel as they migrate from North to South and back. Their sounds ever linger in my heart.


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