SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, Calif. - Decades after the annual migration of swallows was immortalized in a chart-topping romantic ballad, Mission San Juan Capistrano is attempting to lure the birds back with a love song that is all their own.
Speakers hidden amidst the colorful gardens of the historic mission play cliff swallow courtship calls for up to six hours a day during mating season in a last-ditch effort to woo the flocks back.
The graceful birds once swarmed to the 236-year-old mission each spring, flying from the pampas of southern Argentina to nest in the stone ruins of the mission’s earthquake-damaged church. In recent years, however, the swallows have all but vanished after repairs meant removing some nests and urban sprawl crept closer to the mission’s door.
The experiment to lure them back, which began several weeks ago, is the brainchild of Charles Brown, an Oklahoma ornithologist who has studied cliff swallows for nearly 30 years. Brown has been consulting with the mission on how to win over the birds that have been intertwined with its history for at least a century.
The story of the cliff swallows draws crowds each year for the annual monthlong fiesta that marks their return and the Swallows Day Parade, with vibrant mariachi music, dancing, and the ringing of the mission bells.
“They’re ambassadors. If people only know to come to the mission because they hear about the birds first, and they arrive here and they have a sense of inspiration or they become better educated about California history . . . then the birds have done us a service,’’ said Mechelle Lawrence-Adams, the mission’s executive director.
Founded in 1776, the mission was the seventh of 21 outposts established by Franciscan missionaries in what is now California. The first missionaries noticed that each spring flocks of swallows would arrive in the area, usually around March 19, or St. Joseph’s Day.
In 1939, songwriter Leon Rene gave the birds a place in pop culture with the love ballad “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,’’ which reached number four on the charts.
In years past, the mission has tried coaxing the birds back by affixing fake nests to the eaves of buildings, creating mud puddles to provide nest-building materials, and sprinkling lady bugs, a favorite swallow food, on the ground. None of it has worked.
Some swallows do return to the town of San Juan Capistrano each year, but instead nest in the eaves of downtown buildings, under freeway overpasses, and in local creek beds.