Whether you’re a birder, history buff, or simply a lover of traditions, the legendary Return of the Swallows is a California must-do at Mission San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. The March 19 event from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. features live mariachi music, museum exhibits, new audio tours (offered in four languages), and sweet treats like the Swallow’s Nest Cotton Candy.
Since the 1920s, the “Jewel of the Missions” has celebrated the return of the migrating birds—who make their way 6,000 miles from Argentina—on Saint Joseph’s Day on March 19.
The legend goes a bit like this: One day, Father St. John O’Sullivan (pastor of the Mission from 1910–1933) saw a shopkeeper knocking nests down from his shop, leaving swallows frantically flying and squealing over their lost homes. Realizing the birds needed a place to go, he said, “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission.”
Ever since, the birds have returned to San Juan Capistrano in March to start their breeding process. Urbanization has disrupted the swallows’ return in recent years, but the Mission has tried a few experiments to lure them back—such as playing mating calls and creating replica nests—which has helped, according to the Mission’s Swallows Watch.
“Mission San Juan Capistrano’s Return of the Swallows is a real cultural and historic event reflecting the long history of the missions and the amazing arrival of the avian ambassadors that put the Mission on the map,” says the Mission’s Executive Director, Mechelle Lawrence-Adams. “There is something for everyone, and a uniquely historic town [the Historic Los Rios District, the oldest neighborhood in California] to visit afterward.”
Lawrence-Adams has a few recommendations for Mission visitors. First, visit the ruins of the Great Stone Church, which was built by Native Americans from 1796–1806 and fell in the earthquake of 1812, killing 40 people. Next, go see the Serra Chapel, the only chapel still standing where Saint Serra once celebrated mass. Insider tip: Keep an eye out for the large painting in the chapel called The Crucifixion. It was hidden for more than 40 years behind another modern-era painting and was rediscovered in 2013. After conservation, it was determined to be a 200-year-old painting.
Wander the Mission’s gorgeous gardens to spot a variety of flowers, birds, koi, and lizards. “There is a lot of life in the historic setting that seems to create an authentic, yet magical experience for anyone enjoying a meandering walk down a path or under the historic arches,” Lawrence-Adams says.
Tickets are free for members, $12 for adults, $11 for seniors, $8 for children ages 4–11, and free for kids 3 and under. Discounted rates will be given to veterans and military with an I.D. Call (949) 234-1300 or visit the Mission’s website to view the schedule of events.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is one of California’s 21 Missions, which extend a total of 650 miles from San Diego to Sonoma. Read our Quick Guide to California’s 21 Spanish Missions to learn more.