Swallows Welcome Home!

Watch the ABC Video of the Return of the Swallows!

Mission San Juan Capistrano, world famous for its annual return of swallows every year, has suffered a gradual decline in the birds nesting on-site over the years due to urbanization.

Until now!


There currently is a cliff swallows nest in the East Corridor near the Serra Chapel entry, and rough-winged swallows have been spotted nesting in the ruins of the Great Stone Church, a popular spot for the swallows many years ago.




“We actually have brought swallows back to the Mission, and it’s exciting because we’re seeing them in the Great Stone Church and we have a nest under construction right now,” said Mechelle Lawrence Adams, Executive Director of Mission San Juan Capistrano. “I’m personally excited because when I came here in 2003, the swallows had pretty much disappeared with the Great Stone Church stabilization project. And one of the things that was brought to our attention was that the Mission really needed to focus on what is the identity of these avian ambassadors.

“What was important was how do we return the favor of making the Mission a place for home. Home for the birds, home for our visitors, home for the students, home for the faithful and those needing respite and inspiration. It’s always been a theme for our team, that the Mission is home.”

Starting in 2012, the Mission began its efforts to lure the cliff swallows back to the historical landmark, first by luring Dr. Charles Brown, a swallows expert and professor of biological sciences at the University of Tulsa.

Brown and Mission staff created a project that has been implemented in phases: Phase I included playing recorded courtship calls through a speaker on the Mission grounds to lure the cliff swallows that were flying overhead.

Phase II  involved using a stationary nest wall arch near the Great Stone Church. According to Dr. Brown, research shows that cliff swallows prefer to re-use existing nests where possible, as this saves time and energy in building a nest from scratch.

Dr. Brown said the “return of the cliff swallows” could be due to a variety of factors.

“It is hard to say what brought them in, likely a combination of the vocalizations, the nests, and especially the presence of the rough-winged swallows,” he said. “They may have seen the rough-wings, heard the vocalizations, and seen the nests, and this may have stimulated them to settle.

“Hard to know for sure, but if I was to pinpoint one thing, I’m afraid the credit would have to go mostly to the rough-wings, because cliff swallows are often attracted to them.  Live animals will always be more effective than calls or fake nests.”

While the cliff swallows are the birds that have become legendary in relation to the Mission, the rough-winged swallows are new to the Mission. But they are definitely welcomed to the party.

To the average bird watcher, the differences between the rough-winged swallow and cliff swallow may not be noticeable. But there are differences.

“(The rough-winged swallows) are widely distributed across North America in the summer, and winter in Mexico and Central America,” Dr. Brown said. “Unlike cliff swallows, which are highly social and nest in colonies, rough-wings are solitary.  Seldom do you find more than one pair together.

“Rough-wings do not build mud nests (like cliff swallows), but instead nest in horizontal cracks and crevices of a vertical wall.  Likely they have found such a crevice there in the wall that they are using.”

Urbanization over decades and decades has given the cliff swallows — upon completing their annual migration from Argentina in early spring — more choices to nest. The result was a gradual decrease in the number of birds that would nest at the Mission.

Now, though, it seems they are ready to come back.