The Story of the Swallows


Swallows Story | FAQs | Swallows Vocalization Experiement | Dr. Charles Brown | Photos

Cliff Swallow

Swallows Story
The miracle of the “Swallows” of Capistrano takes place each year at Mission San Juan Capistrano, on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day.

As the faithful little birds wing their way back to the most famous mission in California, the village of San Juan Capistrano takes on a fiesta air and the visitors from all parts of the world, and all walks of life, gather in great numbers to witness the “miracle” of the return of the swallows.

At dawn on St. Joseph’s Day, the little birds arrive and begin rebuilding their mud nests, which are clinging to the ruins of the Great Stone Church of San Juan Capistrano. The arches of the two story, vaulted Great Stone Church were left bare and exposed, as the roof collapsed during the earthquake of 1812.

Cliff Swallow

The Great Stone Church, said to be the largest and most ornate in any of the missions, now has a more humble destiny -- that of housing the birds that St. Francis loved so well.

After the summer spent within the sheltered walls of the Old Mission in San Juan Capistrano, the swallows take flight again, and on the Day of San Juan, October 23rd, they leave after circling the Mission bidding farewell to the “Jewel of the Missions.”


Frequently Asked Questions About the Swallows

1. Where are the swallows?
The Cliff Swallows begin to arrive in March from their winter home in Argentina . Between March and October they can be seen building nests in the eaves. Due to urbanization, they seek out areas near water and food sources such as a concrete under pass or bridge near creeks. They start their migration back to Argentina in October.

2. Do the swallows still come back?
The Swallows come back every March.  When the Great Stone Church was stabilized, the preservationists removed the nests that had been constructed over a very long period.  When the nests were removed, the swallows diverted to other portions of San Juan Capistrano.  Also, the swallows came back to the Mission because it was the main and biggest building. With the development of the community, there became alternative locations for them to build their nests.


Swallows Vocalization Experiment

Swallows Vocalization Experiment
Urbanization has resulted in fewer sightings of the birds during their annual migration from Argentina each spring in recent years. But cliff swallows expert Dr. Charles Brown came up with an idea last year that is making a difference.

Under Brown's direction, the Mission established a vocalization project that lures the swallows back to the Mission. The project involves speakers playing cliff swallow courtship calls that are placed behind the statue of Father Junipero Serra on the Mission grounds.

The project proved successful last year after the onset of the program. After the recordings began to be played, cliff swallows were spotted feeding overhead at the Mission several times, and a few cliff swallows flew in to investigate the recorded sounds.

As Seen on NBC Nightly News
Bringing Back the Swallows
Swallows are intertwined with our story
Cliff Swallows expert Dr. Brown's update

"The recording is of courtship songs that males use to attract females," Dr. Brown said. "And males would be attracted too because they are very social birds. A systematic program of playing it a few times a day, when the weather is good and during the times they would be foraging, I think there's a good chance they will come in."

"I think if we keep trying long enough, eventually, some individuals will come by, they'll see the Mission and they will realize it's a good place to nest, as they did in the past."

The project this year begins on February 1. They built it, now come watch the swallows return to Capistrano.

Download official press release

Dr. Charles Brown
Renowned Cliff Swallows Expert

Dr. Charles R. Brown
Professor of Biological Sciences at University of Tulsa
, has studied more than 200,000 cliff swallows over the last 28 years.

Enjoy these books by Charles R. Brown:
Swallows Summer

This book is about a passion for birds, but it is also about the personal challenges of scientific research. Click here to purchase.

Coloniality in the Cliff Swallows
Brown investigates twenty-six social and ecological costs and benefits of coloniality, many never before addressed in a systematic way for any species. Click here to purchase.


Swallows Articles
Choosing where to live and when to come back from the Cliff Swallows Perspective
Professor Charles R. Brown. Click here to learn more.
Article courtesy of Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Click here for more information about St. Joseph's Day and the return of these famous swallows

Please see our History section for more detailed information about the history of Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Download the story of Mission San Juan Capistrano's Swallows

Click here to download cliff swallows photos



Mission Swallow Policy Statement:
Our signature swallow consists of an illustrative fork tail swallow, in-flight. This type of swallow art is unique to the Mission San Juan Capistrano brand because of its popularity in the 1930s and usage in vintage and historic memorabilia. The American public, and even the world at large has come to associate the Mission San Juan Capistrano landmark as the home of these famed birds. When the Mission portrays the literal swallows, we use the photographic, authentic and real life image. In graphic form, we use the romantic version, fork tailed, in-flight swallow.

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Mission San Juan Capistrano Preservation Funds
26801 Ortega Hwy
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

For questions, please call Barb Beier at (949) 234-1323 or email
Mission San Juan Capistrano
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