For the Birds Radio Program: Swallows of Capistrano

Original Air Date: March 20, 1987

Which species are the swallows of San Juan Capistrano? And why does the City of Duluth disapprove of them?

Duration: 3′41″


Swallows of Capistrano

(Recording of “The Swallows of Capistrano”)

Yesterday was the feast of St. Joseph, the day the swallows are supposed to return to the mission at San Juan Capistrano each year. The species commemorated in this legend is the Cliff Swallow–also known as nature’s potter or the adobe bird, the familiar swallow that builds jug- shaped nests under the eaves of buildings anywhere mud and water are both available. The Cliff Swallow is the only midwestern swallow with a square-tipped tail, and it has a cream-colored triangle on its forehead which is easy to see when it peeks out of its gourd-shaped nest.

Cliff Swallows do return to Capistrano around the same time each spring. Since the weather on the southern coast of California is more predictable than the weather here, they usually do return there within a few days of March 19. Up here their return is not nearly so regular–we can expect the first Cliff Swallows anytime from mid-April through the beginning of May. They eat flying insects, and are especially fond of mosquitoes, which means they subsist at least indirectly on human blood.

The City of Duluth considers Cliff Swallows a nuisance at the Auditorium and the Port Terminal, where huge colonies nest. I find Cliff Swallows aesthetically pleasing under any circumstance, but I’m willing to concede that not everyone thinks the mud nests are attractive, and that some people don’t appreciate being pelted with bird droppings, even very tiny ones, on their way to a concert. But I suspect that more than a few visitors to Duluth get a kick out of seeing these birds peeking out of their gourds.

The past few years Duluth firefighters have been knocking down the mud nests by squirting them with hoses. Swallows are protected by U.S. laws and treaties, and the City doesn’t have a permit to destroy young or eggs, so Duluth has actually been violating federal law. More than one firefighter has complained about being required to go out and knock scores of baby birds to their deaths. Swallows are determined nesters, and the only way to effectively, and legally, relocate problem colonies is with equal determination. The problem with Duluth’s approach is that they start knocking down nests too late, and don’t follow through consistently. If you’re going to use a hose, you have to start spraying the very day the birds start building, and keep it up. The closer birds come to completing a nest, the more tightly they bond to the site, and the harder it is to get them to go someplace else. If only the city could make the auditorium as attractive to tourists as it is to swallows, everyone would be happy.

Cliff Swallows are occasionally called “Republican Swallows.” The origin of this nickname is unknown, and a careful scrutiny of voter registrations in Minnesota and Wisconsin suggests that not one Cliff Swallow is registered to vote here. This situation may be different in Chicago, where even dead old coots have been known to vote.

(Recording of a Cliff Swallow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”