Bringing the Swallows Back to Mission San Juan Capistrano


Bringing the Swallows Back to Mission San Juan Capistrano

The Insight:
The miracle of the swallows of Capistrano takes place each year at Mission San Juan Capistrano, on March 19th, Saint Joseph's Day. Swallows migrate 15,000 miles from Goya, Argentina to San Juan Capistrano in large groups.  The San Juan Capistrano community welcomes visitors from all parts of the world to welcome the return of the swallows to the Capistrano Valley.  The Return of the Swallows has been celebrated since the early 1930s.

Before urbanization, Mission San Juan Capistrano was the main and largest building in the community, which is why the swallows continued to return every March. The development of the community and the stabilization of the Ruins of the Great Stone Church, where the swallow's nests were removed by preservationists, created alternative locations for the swallows to build their nests apart from the Mission. As a result, the number of swallows returning to the Mission each year began to decline.

The Strategy:
In 2010, in response to concerns about when the birds arrive and where they choose to nest, we sought the help of cliff swallows expert Dr. Charles R. Brown, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Tulsa who has studied more than 200,000 cliff swallows over the years.  Dr. Brown was invited to present a lecture during the St. Joseph's Day & Return of the Swallows Celebration (his lecture has become an annual tradition). Shortly after, in collaboration with Dr. Brown and Executive staff at the Mission, we began an experiment on the Mission grounds in an effort to lure the birds back to nest.

In 2012, Phase I: The Vocalization Project was launched, in which recorded courtship calls were played through a speaker on Mission grounds to lure the cliff swallows that were flying overhead.  According to Dr. Brown, evidence suggests the vocalization playbacks bring in passing cliff swallows that fly over the site.

In 2015, again collaborating with Dr. Charles Brown, Phase II: The Nest Reenactment Project was launched, which necessitated the construction of a replica wall of man-made nests in a colony-like setting similar to one that existed on the Ruins of the Great Stone Church prior to its 1990s stabilization.  Research shows that cliff swallows prefer to re-use existing nests.

The Results:

  • Phase I: Swallows Vocalization Project proved successful over the years; cliff swallows were spotted feeding overhead at the Mission and flying in to investigate the recorded sounds.
  • Phase II: Nest Reenactment Project is in progress and shows signs of potential nest inhabitency.
  • Achieved coverage on prime time and public broadcasting news stations, cable/international channels including a spotlight feature on NBC 4 Nightly News with then anchor Brian Williams.
  • Achieved coverage in local publications and magazines.
  • Increased tourism and local gate attendance.
  • Increased website traffic.
  • Sell-out attendance on St. Joseph's Day & Return of the Swallows celebration.

Press Coverage:

NBC4 NBC4ReturnoftheSwallows NBC4SJCNews NBC4VikkiVargas

Press Release Archives:

Phase I: Vocalization Project & Phase II: Nest Reenactment Project:


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