March 19

Return of the Swallows


Every year, at the end of a week of festivities, a flock of migratory swallows used to arrive at the Great Stone Church in San Juan Capistrano, greeted with cheers from sightseers.  The sky was black with the shapes of birds returning from winter in Goya, Argentina.  The swallows built nests beneath the arches and eaves of the ruined church.

In recent years, few swallows came to the Mission San Juan Capistrano.  Restoration of parts of the ruined church destroyed many nests and nesting places.  Man-made nests were placed beneath a prominent archway, hoping to tempt annual visitors, but the effort failed.

The celebrations continue, however.  Tourists from all over gather to celebrate the week-long Fiesta de las Golondrinas, and on March 19 (the feast of St. Joseph), mariachi bands and Spanish and Native American dancers entertain the vast crowd.  At noon, a bell-ringing ceremony commences, calling the birds.  Perhaps a few will come, but never in the tremendous numbers of the past.

We are always looking for them, a resident says this year, her face brimming with unfounded hope.

Tourists turn to the bank of bell towers, raising their phones to record the clamor.  They photograph the swinging ropes, the clappers striking metal bells, the scenic sun-dappled stone of the ruined church, but few of them bother to look to the sky.

A shadow falls over the Mission, darkening the images on camera and cell phone screens.  A distant, overhead squawking begins to soar over the clamor of the bells.

Theyre back, someone yells, and cameras and phones swivel, necks crane upward.

Like in years past, like in the famous song, the swallows come back to Capistrano.   

The sky is almost entirely black, but it is a black that ripples like an ocean.  Wings flap, and the cry of multiple birds is so loud that many tourists cover their ears.  The bellringers stop pulling the ropes, so the birds make the only sound.

It is not a birdsong or mating call.  The birds sound angry.

 This is more than I remember, an old gentleman remarks.  Many, many more.

Its as if there is not enough room in the sky.  The birds fight for space, and the dark ocean of feathers seethes with violent waves.

A group of tourists scream and jump away from where theyve been standing.  On the ground, a dying bird flaps its wings.  Its eyes have been pecked out.  The feather pattern, usually a mix of grays with white patches, is entirely dark with grime, as if the bird has been rolled in tar or oil.  The bird has four legs that struggle in the air as it dies.

Other birds begin to fall from the sky, their grime-soaked bodies pecked and bleeding, some with two eyes pecked out, but another pair above, blinking; most with extra legs, a few with an extra head. 

Tourists and locals alike seek shelter amid the ruined stones of the Mission, unaware what disaster struck in the southern hemisphere…only to migrate here in a dark, bilious cloud, then continue to spread as dead and dying birds rain onto the church courtyard.