March 19, 2010

Swallows Day – Mission San Juan Capistrano, California

They say that every year on this day flocks of cliff swallows arrive at the mission of San Juan Capistrano, California, and begin to rebuild their mud nests. The birds migrate (fly in) from Goya, Corrientes, in Argentina—6,000 miles away!—where they spent the winter.

They say that the swallows arrive in such huge swarms that they fill the sky like rain clouds.

Who are “they”? Mostly the people of San Juan Capistrano. Apparently the birds did appear on or near March 19 for years and years, and the people at the mission (the Spanish friars, at one time, and now the tour guides) would ring the mission bells to welcome them. The people of the town would come outside to watch, and people from all over the world would come to see the natural “miracle” of the birds' return.

The people of San Juan Capistrano created a Swallows Day parade, fiesta, and mercado (street market) to celebrate the coming of the swallows, of spring, and of tourists with their money.

ally, this year the Swallows Day parade is happening tomorrow, March 20. It's a Saturday, so it's more convenient, I guess.)


In recent years, there have been very few swallows spotted near the mission at all. Not on March 19, or 20
, or 25, or ever. But people still gather. They still have the Swallows Day parade. They still offer goods at the mercado. They still hold a fiesta. And they still hope the swallows will come.

Long ago the city passed laws protecting the birds' nests. Now locals are trying to lure the birds back by installing ceramic nests, playing recorded bird songs, and consulting with specialists. The swallows are, after all, important to the town's self-concept—and its tourism.

I wonder how many swallow-less years people will still gather to celebrate the missing birds? Or will the swallows choose to return?

Did you know...?
  • Mission San Juan Capistrano is the oldest building in California still in use today. It was the seventh mission built in California by Spanish priests, including Padre Junipero Serra, and Indians; construction began in 1776 (the year that the Declaration of Independence was written, far, far away). An earthquake seriously damaged the mission in 1812, collapsing the roof of the 2-story chapel, and it was never fully rebuilt, but perhaps that was part of the reason that the swallows found refuge there for so many years.
  • It's probably no surprise to you that human sprawl all over Southern California may be responsible for the swallows going elsewhere. There really are houses, condos, mini-malls, and parking lots almost everywhere, as far as the eye can see. According to scientists, all bird populations have fallen in this part of the state, not just swallows...Also, scientists point out that migrating birds frequently choose new places to nest (sometimes locations quite close to their old haunts), often in order to be farther from human encroachment and noise.
  • It may surprise to you that birds seem to be getting smaller. Not just the numbers of birds (as explained above), but the size of the individual birds themselves. A study done of almost 200 species over 46 years indicates a tendency for slightly smaller size. One possible explanation is global warming.
Learn more about swallows, including cliff swallows, here. (Note that there are several recordings of cliff swallows to listen to!)

Watch for swallows. If you see some, report your sightings here.

If you like getting your info from comics, try “The Rudiments of Wisdom Encyclopedia.” Author/artist Tim Hunkin points out that swallows sitting on a wire always sit spaced perfectly evenly, and that swallows migrating from Europe to Africa regularly fly through a 4-mile-long tunnel in the Al
ps, rather than flying over the high more interesting facts! (Note that this author is British, and some words are British spelling.)

Learn more about migration.

  • Some other birds that commonly migrate include ducks, geese, and swans. Plus many seabirds, song birds, and birds of prey.
  • Scientists are studying how birds know when to go, where to go, and so forth. We don't know exactly how birds find their way, but they seem to have an inborn map and to use a combination of cues: the position of the sun, the stars, the earth's magnetic field, perhaps wind direction and ocean sounds, and probably also landmarks.
In a strange but interesting experiment, a bird was carried from its burrow in Wales (Great Britain) to Boston, Massachusetts. There it was released. It took just two weeks for the bird to get back home—crossing 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, totally unfamiliar territory for this particular bird. That just shows you that some birds are born with some sort of GPS system!
Read this for more interesting migration facts.
  • In the spring, monarch butterflies fly northward (orsometimes eastward) from their wintering homes, as well, sometimes traveling between 200 and 275 miles per day. Unlike birds, the same insects don't make the whole journey. This makes the whole migration “back north” even more amazing—how do the monarchs know where to go, when ALL OF THEM are a different generation than the butterflies who migrated south the fall before?
  • In the spring, California Gray Whales migrate from breeding grounds in Mexico to feeding grounds in Alaska, and Humpback Whales travel the opposite direction, going from Central America (where they bred) to the nutrient-rich waters around Antarctica.

Record Book:
  • Migrating swallows sometimes fly as much as 600 miles in a single day!
  • Arctic Tern – longest migration of any bird – over 14,000 miles (22,000 km)
  • Bar-tailed Godwits – longest non-stop flight – almost 7,000 miles (11,000 km)
NOTE: these birds don't stop to eat! They have to store a lot of body fat before they begin flying!
  • Humpback Whales – longest migration of any mammal – around 5,000 miles (more than 8,000 km)
  • Here is the Brain Pop Junior explanation of migration (with activities!).
  • Kid Zone has a nice, short article about monarch butterflies—with a great photo of a tree covered with masses of the insects, looking like orange autumn leaves! Be sure to try out the jigsaw puzzles and coloring pages (links near bottom of page).

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