Birdman of San Juan Capistrano

Swallows expert Charles Brown discusses the birds that once nested in this historic mission in Orange County, Calif.

Cliff swallow in flight, Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve, Calif., image

A cliff swallow takes flight at the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve.

For decades, visitors to Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, Calif., would watch each spring for cliff swallows arriving to build nests among the magnificent stone ruins of this “jewel” of the state’s 21 missions. When the birds began going elsewhere, church leaders called on swallow expert Charles Brown of Oklahoma’s University of Tulsa. You can hear him speak at the mission’s annual swallows celebration on March 19. (949) 234-1300, missionsjc.com.

Q Why did the birds pick the mission?
A
Being adobe and rock, it stood out like a big cliff. It was an obvious nest site.

Q How come they left?
A
Cliff swallows are not birds of forests; they generally avoid them. My guess is that a decline began in the ’80s as trees and vegetation increased in Southern California. Also, some old nests were knocked down, inadvertently, I assume, during an earthquake retrofit in the ’90s. The birds’ take: “Our time here is over.”

Q Where did the swallows go?
A
They’re still in the area. There was a large colony at a community college in the early 2000s, and a colony on a golf course two summers ago.

Q Any way to entice them back?
A
We’re exploring the idea of installing artificial plaster nests.

Q How did you get interested in swallows?
A
They’re very social birds, meaning you can study a lot of universal traits that apply to social animals—including humans.

Q Other spots to see cliff swallows?
A
I’ve been told there are many in the area around Minden, Nev. In Lincoln, Calif., near Sacramento, Thunder Valley Casino Resort built a special cliff swallow shelter. People call it the “million dollar birdhouse.”

Photography by Don DeBold/Wikipedia

This article was first published in March 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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