When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That’s the day you promised to come back to me
When you whispered, “Farewell” in Capistrano
‘Twas the day the swallow flew out to sea
– Leon Rene, recorded by The Ink Spots
The fabled “Capistrano,” destination of both swallows and these two lovers, is about 25 miles from where I live. It lies along the path of the Spanish missionaries who built their Catholic churches all the way up our coast. The path, known as El Camino Real, or “The Road of the King,” stretches the length of the state and includes 21 Spanish missions, built by indigenous labor, which have become the centerpiece of every Californian’s fourth grade education.
According to legend, every year on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph in the Catholic calendar, migrating swallows return in a huge black cloud to nestle in the eaves of the crumbling mission. Local Catholics see this as a sign of faith, as the birds return predictably every year to reclaim their temporarily abandoned nests and breed under the auspices of holy ground. The mission is conveniently close to streams that breed the kinds of insects the swallows prefer to eat, and, according to the local tourism guides, the exposure of the original mission’s arches by an earthquake in 1812 provides the perfect nesting grounds for these migratory spring birds.
Non-Catholic locals simply see the return of the swallows as an unmistakable sign of the beginning of Spring. Suddenly, our mornings are accompanied by bird song. The skies are alive with graceful, dancing flocks of birds that weren’t there just a few days ago. I walk in my local park almost every weekend. It is a tiny slice of nature in this almost completely suburbanized world, but it’s just enough for the swallows. Every year, right around Ostara, a flock of lively swallows begins their morning dance for nourishment. They make their nests in a freeway overpass and feed on insects that buzz just over the tiny creek below, and they sing a beautiful song that announces the arrival of a new season and new beginnings.
The city of San Juan Capistrano celebrates the arrival of these Spring messengers just as surely as we celebrate the sabbat of Ostara. March 19, the Feast Day of St. Joseph to parishioners, is a day of celebration that the city calls “Swallows Day.” While they may observe the return of the flying ambassadors on a slightly different day (March 22 this year), the arrival of the swallows is always celebrated with a parade and a party. It has become a local tourist industry, with the nearby shops enticing tourists with promises of a “free swallow story,” and local businesses with names like The Swallows Inn popping up around town. The town has grown around the legend, and it’s now a bustling seaside suburb that attracts sun-loving surfers, families on vacation, and lots of fourth grade students on noisy yellow buses.
With their long and faithful migration, swallows may very well be the salmons of the air. While many birds migrate south for the winter, few range as far or return as reliably to their original mating grounds. Species of the birds are found on all continents except Antarctica, but they almost make it that far. The cliff swallow, which famously summers here in California, spends the months of our winter in Argentina. It has been said that swallows “follow warm weather,” so their arrival in any area is a sure sign that the days are brightening and the weather is heating up. Their arrival to your area and departure from it herald the turning of the wheel, and, with a little understanding of their nature, their presence can bring the observant Person many lessons to meditate on over a bright and sunny spring day.
The most famous attribute of the swallow is their reliable migration patterns. In San Juan Capistrano, the swallows arrive on March 19 and depart on October 23. This incredible predictability is part of the reason why they have been immortalized in song and enshrined as a tourist attraction. But for those of us who walk a magical path, they teach a lesson of truth and dependability. Many Wicca 101 books discuss the importance of speaking the truth. After all, how can you expect your spells to manifest if the universe is used to you speaking words that are false? The clockwork schedule of these tiny little birds reminds us of the importance of doing what we say, of discipline, and of reliability. The swallow returns; our word is true. Both of us must be dependable for our promises and magick to be of any value at all.
By the same behavior pattern, swallows signal the turning of the Wheel. Their arrival in your area brings the message of new beginnings, hope, and promise. This could be a wonderful time to start new projects or see the world through new eyes. The swallow teaches us annually to start fresh, turn the page, and begin anew. On the other hand, their return to the south is a sign that it is a time to go underneath, within, and attune to the underworld. Their disappearance is a time to confront the parts of us we have ignored, buried, or imprisoned. Work with the swallow during either time of year to come into better attunement with these necessary aspects of life.
Swallows are streamlined, torpedo-like fliers. They are built for the air, with aerodynamic bodies and long, pointed wings. They possess incredible maneuverability. Watching a flock feed is like watching a carefully choreographed dance routine. While they work together, each one seems able to turn sharply at a moment’s notice to catch its desired prey. Their graceful sky dancing reminds us to take life with an easy grace, work cooperatively with our neighbors, and always be ready to take that quick turn that may lead you down an unfamiliar, but satisfying road. Fly through life with skill, with purpose, but don’t get so rigid that you keep on the straight and narrow when your path has turned a corner. Keep alert and know when to turn. Every new fork and crossroad is an opportunity to put purpose and intent back into your life and back into your magick.
Swallows are monogamous for life. In addition to that, they return every year to reclaim the same nest from the year before. Once again, the lessons of the swallow swing toward dependability. A swallow can be counted upon, trusted, and expected to follow through. They teach us a sometimes hard, but very necessary lesson for our family and work lives: be dependable. Pagans, Witches, and New Agers often carry the stereotype of being flighty, whimsical, and unreliable. Living in a magickal world can sometimes entrance us to the point that our feet leave the ground and we forget the ordinary, flesh-and-blood world we must be a part of to survive.
Part of what makes modern Witchcraft and other neo-pagan religions different and (in my opinion) better from other religious paths is the affirmation of the physical world. We see this world as sacred, not fallen, so we live at all times in a holy realm. Yet, whether it’s fair or not, we carry the stigma of having our heads in the clouds. The reliability of the swallow is an annual reminder that Wees must have their feet on the ground while they seek spiritual nourishment from the air above. It is just as important, and sacred, to be a good husband, wife, bill payer, or citizen as it is to be some starving but enlightened guru on an isolated mountaintop. Swallows, without fail, remind us to be good stewards of our earthly lives.
At the same time, swallows don’t like to stay on the ground. Their legs aren’t built for walking. They are much better suited to the air, and they spend most of their time in flight. This is an emphatic reminder to get up above the world and get some perspective. Yes, reliability in the earthly realm is important, but so is an accurate view of your path on this planet. Just as it’s tempting to spend all our time in the clouds, it’s just as tempting to get caught up in the narrow view of the physical world. Swallows always see things from above, reminding us to lift our heads out of our everyday troubles and look at our problems from a new perspective. With a new, more accurate outlook, our decisions become both easier to make and more effective in our lives. Swallows teach us to take a larger view of life even as we go about our daily routines and tasks.
Swallows got their name because of their feeding style. Their beaks are short, but wide, enabling them to catch and eat as many flying insects as possible. Like a baleen whale, they skim the skies, peeling off as many layers of prey as they can with each pass. They teach us a similar, important piece of life: nourishment can come from anywhere and anything. Don’t limit yourself to a narrow view of what can help you grow physically, psychically, or spiritually. Every new experience is nourishment along your path. Seek out as much wisdom as you can get, from as many academic, spiritual, and physical paths as possible to become as well-rounded and fully fed as you can. Learn from everything; don’t be afraid to try something new.
Another fascinating aspect of the swallow is the number of calls it is able to vocalize. Swallows communicate to each other with calls for feeding, mating, excitement, or just for communication with others. The lesson here is twofold. This Spring, listen to what is being said to you. Is it honest? Is it biased? Are you perceiving the communication of others accurately, the way it’s meant, or are you projecting your own meaning onto it based upon your own preexisting assumptions? The ability of the swallow to alter its calls reminds us to remember the changing communication patterns of other in our lives. Are they berating you? Complaining about you? Perhaps they’re actually calling for help. Listen.
At the same time, this is an invitation to watch your own communication. Are you clearly changing your calls to accurately express your needs? Are you speaking the truth, or are you just repeating back an old, practiced, comfortable way of responding to what confronts you in life? If you find yourself stuck in a pattern, then the message of the swallow is to change what you say. Alter what you say and how you say it. Add a dash of compassion, take away a bit of sarcasm, double up the love and trust. Sometimes the behavior we perceive in others is really a function of our own biased perceptions and our own lack of clear, direct communication. Change these, says the swallow, and you might just get better results.
I wonder, though, if the most important teaching of the swallow is in its new relationship with the city of San Juan Capistrano. The town is part of the ever-growing, chic southern portion of Orange County. Its desirable location along the sea has caused more and more suburban sprawl to grow around it, effectively cutting off the waterways and natural food sources for the swallows that made the town famous. Desperate for food, the cliff swallows that once loved San Juan have expanded their range. I see more of them under my local freeway overpass that bridges a creek than I did exploring the city’s swallow epicenter the weekend after Swallow’s Day. The swallows seem to have left Capistrano.
The mission down south has begun to lure them back with recorded mating calls, blasted from within the stone walls starting in early March. This tactic has shown some success, but those of us who walk a Pagan path – and understand basic science – must be skeptical. Development has consumed the watersheds that used to provide the rich supply of insects that the swallows feed on. Without the water, there will be no insects. Without the insects, there will be no food. Without food, it won’t matter how many enticing mating calls the mission blasts from the behind its barriers, the legendary birds will never return just to starve.
Perhaps the biggest message of the modern swallow is to remain in balance with your environment. As the Wheel turns, the swallows turn with it. As their hereditary home squeezes them out, other areas attract them. Your soul will always seek to correct itself; listen to what it says. Learn from your own search for nourishment in this life. Maintain that balance in life and maybe the swallows will find a spiritual home in you.
* This story was originally published in the Temple Bell, the newsletter for the Temple of Witchcraft.