—it is said they carry Spring on their wing tips. So irresistible is the imagery, I once wrote a short story about it. In Southern California, this springtime migration has also given birth to another seasonal ritual: the celebration of the birds’ return to San Juan Capistrano Mission, which takes place every year on March 19th, St. Joseph’s Day.
Big crowds congregate at this “Jewel of the Missions” to witness this natural event unfolding throughout the month of March, and St. Joseph’s Day has become something of a tradition itself—a fun festival enjoyed by all. There’s the ringing of the famous bells at the Great Stone Church in the old courtyard, a guest lecturer on cliff swallows, music performances, and even a historic fashion show. Like many Southern California residents, I love the symbolism of it all and have occasionally partaken in these spring festivities. As to the swallows, after spending the summer within the sheltered walls of the mission, they head back to warmer climates. On the Day of San Juan, October 23rd, large flocks take to the sky and circle over the mission before disappearing south. And the completed cycle repeats itself year after year.
The San Juan Capistrano swallows are cliff swallows that stay near the water—the coastline—where they can readily build their mud nests. So imagine my surprise when late last May a nest sprang up overnight under the front eave of my house, fifteen miles inland. At first I thought it was a hornet’s nest with its oblong shape and very tight entry hole and was debating what to do about it. But then the birds began to make their presence known, flitting in and out of their love nest and taking turns to guard it. Now I’m no avian expert, but after watching them fly and their distinctive silhouettes outlined against the sky, I began to form suspicions that these were swallows under my roof.
Swell, I thought. We were going to have baby swallows in a couple of weeks, and then within a month after that the babies and their parents should be off to some wetlands along the coast, perhaps to return again next spring—just like the famed swallows of San Juan Capistrano.
Long story short, the few weeks extended into months as the nest showed no sign of being vacated and bird poop began to pile up on the window ledge under the eave. Then one day while I happened to be out front, I was shocked to find the facade covered with swallows darting and diving toward the nest or clinging vertically to the stucco surface around it. Dozens of them—in frantic, fluttery motion and seemingly swelling in number by the minute. I had no idea what strange thing was going on, but luckily the frenzy subsided after a while and the swarm just flew away.
Needless to say, I called a wildlife control service the very next day to ask for help. The gentleman came out and confirmed that it was a swallow’s nest under my eave, which surprised him because of the relatively long distance to the water. But since swallows are a protected species, there was nothing he could do until their season was over by the end of August. We waited and eventually removed the empty nest, and he advised me to keep an eye out for the birds’ return the next spring. “Not a whole hell of a lot you can do, except maybe try to interrupt them before they get a new nest built,” he said. Interrupt them? “You can try to put the hose on the unfinished nest and remove it, but beware those little buggers are tenacious and they can rebuild virtually overnight. And many more will then follow.” Really?!
So now that the wet winter is retreating and the day is getting longer, I find myself hanging out in the front yard more each day, checking the blue sky and under the eave. And praying and hoping that the darned swallows won’t return.