Thursday, April 23, 2009

Return of the Swallows to California

I’ve long remembered the Return of the Swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano in Southern California on or about St. Joseph’s Day, March 19. The birds have traveled thousands of miles on their migrational flight from South America.

Every year the small town of San Juan Capistrano takes on a fiesta air and tourists and locals gather to witness the “miracle” of the return of the swallows. Apparently each year a few scouts arrive prior to the larger flocks of birds whose main arrival is said to be on the morning of St. Joseph’s Day.

As soon as the birds arrive they begin building or rebuilding their mud nests, which are clinging to the eves, arches, and adobe walls of the old mission chapel founded in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan priest.

The return of the swallows has always been a celebration, a mythical and mystical event, and much appreciated by those who witness it.

But three or so weeks later, 475 miles away, in Auburn, in Northern California, there is little celebration of returning swallows. In fact, some in Auburn are not happy at all to have these birds around the 111 year-old Placer County Courthouse, a place they have nested for many years.

Over the winter, about 100 nests were removed and $36,000 worth of see through black mess–netting was put up around the dome and colonnade to prevent nesting. One local business owner of the Courthouse Coffee shop across the street has enjoyed watching the birds return for several years. Linda Lareau, is quoted in the Auburn Journal as saying, “I say, ‘let them return.’” Others have commented on the apparent frustration of the birds as they are unable to get to their usual nesting place, and still others have said the birds don’t bother them.

Photo by Ben Furtado, Auburn Journal Newspaper

Some may disagree as bird droppings may end up on sidewalks and cars. The swallows and their nest are protected under state and federal law.

Photo by Ben Furtado, Auburn Journal Newspaper

All swallows are included under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 as migratory insectivorous birds and as such are protected by state and federal regulations. It is illegal for any person to take, possess, transport, sell, or purchase them or their parts, such as feathers, nests, or eggs, without a permit. As a result, certain activities affecting swallows are subject to legal restrictions.

The California Department of Fish and Game, the enforcement agency, considers February 15 to September 1 to be the swallow nesting season. Completed nests during this breeding season cannot be touched without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Outside of these dates, the nests can be removed without a permit. During nesting, a permit authorizing nest removal will be issued only if it can be justified by strong, compelling reasons.

Netting can provide a physical barrier between the birds and the nest site. The mesh size should be 1/2 to 3/4 inch; however, 1 inch has been used successfully. If a plastic net is used, it should be attached so that it can be pulled taut. This prevents flapping in the wind, which looks unsightly and results in tangles or breakage at mounting points. The net should not have any loose pockets or wrinkles that could trap and entangle birds. …Attach netting to buildings before the birds arrive and leave it up permanently or remove it after the nesting season

Cliff swallows are found throughout California, except in high mountains and the dry southeastern desert. Four basic conditions are found at all cliff swallow colonies: (1) an open habitat for foraging; (2) a vertical surface beneath an overhang for attaching the nest; (3) a supply of mud that has the proper consistency for nest building; and (4) a body of fresh water for drinking.

Swallows feed on insects. A large part of each day they are in the air catching flies, beetles, and mosquitoes (that should be beneficial for the West Nile threat). Their long, pointed wings give them speed and maneuverability. Normally, they are not seen on the ground except when collecting mud for their nests. Most do not have musical voices but only twitter or squeak.

For a number of years, my family would camp in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains and would fish the Owens River. And under the bridges would be swallow nests and the flickering flight and squeaking of the swallows. The Owens River gave the birds all the mud and water they could have dreamed of. It would be so strange to go there and not see the swallows, the same as it would be if they were gone from San Juan Capistrano and their other habitual nesting places, places they’ve nested for decades, and even centuries.

Auburn is also having other bird problems. Wild turkeys are chasing and attacking people.

Photo by Gus Thomson, Auburn Journal

Could it be the birds in Auburn are talking to each other?



Elizabeth Bradley said...

My Dad built his dream home not far from Auburn. My husband remembers him mentioning the swallows. Wild turkeys attacking people. I have been chased by domestic geese, which is no picnic. I enjoyed your post.

John-Michael said...

I find the spirit and practice of Native Peoples completely appropriate and even comfortably "right" with regard to these evidences of Life's rhythms and methods. To be in harmony with and respectfully embrace all of Creation, seems so naturally peaceful and spirit-enhancing. Which, by the way, is pretty much the effect that your lovely Presence in my personal world, has. I am grateful for You, Dear Linda.

Lovingly ...

Linda Pendleton said...

Thanks, Elizabeth, glad you enjoyed it.

John Michael,
Thank you for sharing your loving thoughts with me, with the world.