One of California's oldest missions is trying to bring back a piece of its living history: cliff swallows. The tiny, outgoing birds used to nest by the hundreds at Mission San Juan Capistrano, becoming a top attraction for visitors.
The cliff swallows' long-time roost at Mission San Juan Capistrano is celebrated every year in an annual parade. It’s been immortalized through song:
The ballad has been remade over...and over... and topped the charts.
The only problem is that the swallows aren't coming back to Capistrano.
A project to restore the stone ruins of the mission's church in the 1990s broke up a colony with several hundred nests.
"We had to destroy the homes of the animals and you know it's sad - but you know we had to stabilize these ruins so they wouldn't fall over and kill man," said Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, the mission's executive director.
The little brown birds with the white triangles on their faces spend their winters in the warmth and sun of southern Argentina. But every spring, they fly back to the city of San Juan Capistrano. You can see them in the sky, flashing their white bellies as they divebomb for insects mid-air.
They just aren't coming back to the mission. Pat March started volunteering at the mission 20 years ago and has witnessed multiple attempts to grab the attention of passing swallows.
"What they would do is put out ladybugs to attract the swallows," she said. Also, because the birds build their gourd-shaped nests out of mud pellets, staffers created puddles for them on mission grounds. "You just dig a little ditch and put water in it and it's supposed to be the 'swallows wallows,'" said March.
The mission made it really easy for the birds by sticking fake ceramic nests beneath the eaves of buildings. But still, these pre-fab homes didn't bring back the missing swallows. In fact, none of the tactics did. It was time to hire a professional.
On the case is Charles Brown, an ornithologist from the University of Tulsa who has been studying cliff swallows for 30 years.
Brown could see why the mission was having such a difficult time getting the swallows back. Southern California, he says, has seen a 50-percent reduction in its swallows population over the last 40 years because of urbanization.
"That is the one part of North America where the numbers have been going down," said Brown. He decided that against these odds, the best way to attract the birds to the mission was to exert some peer pressure.
"The social species, they often look to see if others have settled there and have others been successful there," Brown said. "So we have to fool them into thinking that birds have been there recently."
The tactic involves blaring a recording of cliff swallows from Nebraska that Brown made so that the midwesterners’ chirps fill the mission’s courtyard, mixing with the sound of schoolchildren on field trips. The sounds come from a speaker system hidden behind bushes, and a lot of people are hoping the recording works.
Not just the mission employees who get the complaints about the missing swallows. But nearby businesses, too.
Dominic Mayo works at The Capistrano Trading Post, across the street from the mission. The store is awash in swallows paraphernalia. ”More swallows mean more business," said Mayo. ”We have metal swallows hand-made in Haiti, little swallow silver charms, swallow wind chimes, swallow mugs. We have shot glasses that say ‘Just a Swallow’ .”
But more than a month into the experiment with the recording, no swallows have come back to nest. Scientists have not given up yet, though. Walter Piper of Chapman University, who’s working with Charles Brown, made an exciting discovery this week. Piper is in a residential neighborhood less than a quarter-mile away from the mission, where he’s found nests for about 100 swallows.
”This is the first indication that a cliff swallows were nesting nearby the mission," said Piper. ”I had all this coffee this morning, so I’m overexcited.”
He quickly strides over to one ranch-style house, binoculars around his neck, and points to several nests clustered together under the eaves, with birds inside. ”It’s cute to see them poke their heads out of there," he said.
Piper says these birds are all potential tenants for the mission, either for this year, or the next.
In the meantime, the mission just has to keep selling itself to the swallows. There’s lots of natural light, great views and the place is move-in ready. Swallows, what are you waiting for?