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San Juan Capistrano is on a last-ditch swallow mission

May 14, 2012 | 11:19 am

In a last-ditch effort to lure back the tiny cliff swallow, Mission San Juan Capistrano is trying to win the affections of the migratory visitor by playing the bird’s mating call throughout the mission grounds.

The unromantic croak of the swallow, piped from an iPod tucked behind a statue of mission founder Junipero Serra, rings inside the mission’s adobe walls.

The birds, with their orange-colored rumps and white foreheads, once arrived in such numbers that their swarms looked like storm clouds in the spring sky, a migration that inspired songs, paintings and a yearly parade.

PHOTOS: Swallows' Day at the mission

But urbanization and disruptions from a preservation effort at the church have chased them away, and the once familiar cliff swallow's mating cry is no longer heard -- except from the continuous loop that plays five days a week, and up to six hours at a stretch.

Before mission officials turned to seduction to attract the birds, they tried bringing in ceramic nests to replace the real ones that had been knocked down during the preservation work. That didn’t work.

Then they turned to the ladybug, thinking that maybe they could entice the swallows back with one of their favorite meals. That didn't work, either.

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So the mission turned to Charles Brown, a biologist at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma who has spent 30 years researching the cliff swallow.

Brown, who has lectured at the mission in the past, acknowledged that his iPod experiment is a long shot.

"If the cliff swallows return, it's probably going to stay a marginal population," he said. "The landscape isn't suitable for them anymore. It will be a struggle to keep them there."

For locals, however, the legend of the swallows can be preferable to the reality -- the swallows aren't so beloved when their nest is on your house and they're making a mess.

"It's mainly a tradition," said Dave Scribner one recent afternoon at the Swallows Inn, a favorite watering hole in town. "We don't sit here waiting for the birds."

"It could be two or 200," added Sal Grazioli. "It wouldn't make a difference."


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