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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

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Birds on a Mission

By Karl Vilacoba

Courtesy Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission San Juan Capistrano draws thousands of tourists each year,

both human and avian.

It may sound tough to swallow, but according to local lore, the annual concentration of birds at Mission San Juan Capistrano began with an invitation from a Franciscan priest. In “Legend of the Swallows Return,” one of a collection of stories published in 1930’s “Capistrano Nights,” Father St. John O’Sullivan writes that sometime after the town grew up around the mission, which was founded in 1776, one of the priests encountered a local shopkeeper who was annoyed by the presence of all the “dirty birds” that migrated to the area each season. The man was seen angrily sweeping at the swallows’ mud nests and chasing them away, acts that would violate city ordinance today.

The priest invited the little birds to the mission, where there was “room for all,” according to the story, and they’ve been returning ever since with the comfort of knowing they’ll be safe there. The event was marked by the Franciscans as occurring on March 19, the day of the Feast of St. Joseph. Each spring around that date, visitors flock to the town for the return of the birds in an annual celebration called the Fiesta de las Golondrinas.

The Juaneño Indians, the original inhabitants of the region, have their own legend about the swallows. The area’s last known full-blooded Juaneño, a former mission bell ringer named Acu, was said to have speculated that the birds came from the Holy Land far across the sea. They carried twigs in their beaks so that when they got tired, they could float on them for a rest on their journey to San Juan Capistrano.

Legends aside, trackers have identified an area of Argentina some 7,500 miles away as the swallows’ winter destination. The birds reportedly start their journey in mid-February, flying at altitudes above 2,000 feet to take advantage of favorable air currents and stay above predatory birds.

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