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Dr. Charles Brown examines the plaster nests being used to lure cliff swallows back to the Mission. Photo: Courtesy Mission San Juan Capistrano
Dr. Charles Brown examines the plaster nests being used to lure cliff swallows back to the Mission. Photo: Courtesy Mission San Juan Capistrano

The Capistrano Dispatch

During St. Joseph’s Day and the Return of the Swallows celebration on March 19, Mission San Juan Capistrano unveiled the second phase of its efforts to lure back the cliff swallows to the Mission grounds. The number of swallows nesting at the Mission has declined gradually over the years as urbanization has given the birds more options to build their nests around town.

Charles Brown, a cliff swallows expert and professor of biological sciences at the University of Tulsa, implemented Phase I—the Vocalization Project—in 2012, during which recorded courtship calls were played through a speaker on the Mission grounds to lure the cliff swallows that were flying overhead.

While Phase I continues, Phase II involves using a stationary nest wall arch near the ruins of the Great Stone Church. The arch consists of a wood frame, adobe and plaster, and is about 15 feet tall and 15 feet wide, allowing for approximately 40 nests made from molds and dental plaster stacked along the top of the perch.

According to Brown, anecdotal evidence suggests the vocalization playbacks at least occasionally bring in passing cliff swallows that fly over the site but do not stay to nest. The goal of the next phase is to increase the stimulus being presented to the passing birds by creating the nest wall arch. Research has shown that cliff swallows prefer to reuse existing nests where possible, as this saves time and energy over building a nest from scratch.

Once the birds notice the plaster nests and begin using them, Brown said spillover or additional settling birds likely will lead to them building nests on the walls of the ruins of the Great Stone Church. And once nests are built, the artificial wall arch would no longer be needed.

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