BYE, BYE, BIRDIE
When the swallows come back to Capistrano/ That’s the day I pray that you’ll come back to me.
And the day is today, St. Josephs Day, although St. Joseph has nothing to do with swallows. Like feathered clockwork, cliff swallows year after year migrated from Goya, Argentina, to the Mission San Juan Capistrano in southern California. Every year the good townsfolk of San Juan Capistrano welcomed them back with an annual Swallows’ Day Parade and other festive events. And the tourists would flock as well. Yes, the past tense is appropriate.
Since 2009, the fabled swallows have failed to return to San Juan Capistrano, no matter how often folks sang that song they inspired. They have instead begun migrating to and nesting in the Chino Hills of Southern California, north of San Juan Capistrano. And they have built their nests in the eaves of the Vellano Country Club, next to a golf course. Will tourists now have to pay greens fees to watch the event? The picture just isn’t that powerful, and “when the swallows come back to the Vellano Country Club . . .” doesn’t cut it as a romantic song. An era has ended.
And what of the song? Written by Leon René and first recorded by The Ink Spots in 1940, reaching #4 on the charts, it has been recorded by Glenn Miller, Xavier Cugat, Gene Krupa, Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo, Billy May, the Five Satins, Elvis Presley, and Pat Boone, whose 1957 version reached # 80 on the Billboard Hot 100. Is it now headed for the scrapheap of forgotten music? Back to the Bluebirds of Happiness – they can be trusted.
2012: The Swallow Saga Continues
After a few swallowless years, the mission took steps to lure their fickle feathered friends birds back. A Cliff Swallow expert from the University of Tulsa led the effort. At first he tried seducing them with song — not their theme song (imagine being wooed by a continuous Pat Boone vocal) but a loop of swallow impersonations. A few birds swooped in to investigate, but didn’t fall for it.
In 2016, the mission added artificial nests, since it’s known that Barn Swallows, and probably Cliff Swallows, are attracted to sites that have old nests. The faux nests were attached to a large temporary wall in hopes that the birds would move in and eventually spill over and start using the actual mission structures.
Swallow alert: Last year two real nests were discovered at the mission and several swallows were spotted in flight. Stay tuned.
Now here’s a bird that is truly trustworthy:
Yellow Bird, Part I: Their Eyes Met, Sort of
A feathered kamikaze ablaze in reds, oranges and yellows, Antoine’s bird plunged from the top branches of the tamarind tree. But then, at the last possible moment, it reversed avian gears and landed with a certain grace at the edge of the table where Antoine worked at his papers. It might have been a perfect landing were it not for the papers, but fluttering parrot wings scattered them.
Antoine grabbed several out of midair and, reaching down to the ground for the others, shouted: “Damn you.”
“Damn you,” responded the bird.
“Feathered fiend,” said Antoine, stacking the papers.
“Damn you,” said the bird.
Antoine suddenly grinned at the bird. “Voila! Your lack of vocabulary betrays your basic stupidity and demonstrates very well why I am at the top of the food chain and you are very near the bottom. At any time, should I tire of you, you are soup.”
“Damn you,” said the parrot, its voice crackling with defiance.
“Fou!” said Antoine, and went back to his papers. The papers pleased him, and he whistled as he shuffled them. The bird swaggered back and forth along the edge of the table. Other birds, coached by their owners, might declare themselves “pretty birds.” Not this one. He knew damn well he was pretty and remained smugly silent on the subject. His human companion was himself quite smug; the papers on the table proved that he was profiting from the café against odds. Located at the center of the island, five kilometers from the nearest beach, Bistro Francaise nevertheless attracted a steady stream of customers. They came to sit under the fifty-foot tamarind tree for lunch and on his small patio for dinner. At lunch, the parrot swooped out of the tamarind to a tree pregnant with bunches of light green bananas, past a pawpaw, and over the diners’ heads. He strutted on their tables and spoke to the lucky ones, sending them away remarking on the wonder of that bird. At dinner, Antoine strutted past their tables just to be sure they were in awe of his culinary ability. And after dinner he would sip cognac with them before sending them away remarking on the wonder of that man.
Not only tourists made the pilgrimage to the middle of the island; many locals dropped in to dine or just pass the time with a bottle or two of fine French wine. In a short time, Bistro Francaise had become something of an institution. Antoine was certain that this was a result of his congeniality as well as his culinary ability. Others, however, maintained that they frequented the Bistro Francaise because of the admittedly good food and the ambience of starry skies, crisp night air and the natural cacophony that surrounded them, untouched by manufactured sound, and that they did so in spite of the owner’s “congeniality.”
“You’re a frog,” said Antoine’s bird, annoyed at the lack of attention. “God save the queen.”
“I wish I could identify the swine who twisted your tiny parrot mind with this English prattle,” Antoine hissed. “God save the queen, indeed. It takes a very backward country to not only retain a monarchy but to dote and gush over it.”
“Go. Go fly away before I pluck your feathers. You annoy me.” Antoine pushed his papers into neat little stacks and slipped an elastic band around each stack. He stacked the stacks, stood and marched toward the kitchen. Taking its cue, the parrot lifted off and ascended to the heights of the tamarind tree.
The Cuban black bean soup, amply fortified with sherry, was velvet on the diners’ lips. The grilled grouper with hearts of palm stopped conversations short. And the gateau led to an almost reverential silence. Antoine beamed. He paced the periphery of the patio, sipping at a glass of the same sherry that had so transformed the soup, and puffed at a hand-rolled eight-inch cigar, always keeping a watchful eye on the two young women who hurried back and forth bewitching the diners that crowded around every one of the cafe’s sixteen tables with not only their efficiency but their bashful smiles and the native lilt of their voices.
Antoine paused at a table occupied by four young men who were just finishing up. “Good fish,” said one.
“Good fish,” harrumphed Antoine as though the compliment were an insult.
“Did you catch them yourself?” asked another.
“Catch them myself indeed,” said Antoine, shaking his head and resuming his circumnavigation of the patio. As he neared the end of the short journey, he spotted an attractive young woman sitting alone, sipping at a glass of white wine and staring out into the night instead of the book that lay open on the table. She had dark hair and dark eyes and the pale skin of a new arrival. A soft white blouse embraced breasts that inspired staring.
“Good evening,” said Antoine with a slight bow. “I am Antoine, the proprietor and chef. I hope my efforts met with your approval.”
She turned toward him with a tentative smile and examined him with deep dark eyes that rendered him impotent, tethered by her gaze. “It was delicious, thank you.”
He paused, waiting to speak, afraid he might babble. “You had the grouper, I believe?” Easy assumption – only one person didn’t have grouper – an American, naturally.
“Yes, it was wonderful.”
His self-confidence was fighting its way back into the game. “Simplicity is the key with fresh island seafood. A subtle blend of lemon, wine and herbs, and searing heat. You are on holiday?”
“A little business, then a lot of beach. And, of course, dining.” She raised her glass to him, and he beamed before giving his little cough that was meant to indicate a modesty that didn’t exist.
“I hope you will be able to dislodge yourself from business and beaches long enough to join us for lunch. It really is a beautiful spot during the day. So peaceful, so unhurried.”
“It must be. It’s certainly beautiful at night.” She looked out into the darkness once again and Antoine let his eyes drop to where the slit in her dress plunged between her breasts to somewhere below the top of the table. When he looked up again, he discovered that he had been caught. She was now looking directly at him, and her expression suggested she was fully aware of his indiscretion.
“Ah, yes, the night. It is beautiful. And you bring additional beauty to it, if I may say so.”
She laughed a little and said: “Thank you.”
“It is my pleasure, mademoiselle, my pleasure. But I must disturb your reverie no longer. I will excuse myself and return to my duties.” He pulled to attention and stood as though awaiting dismissal, then said: “Au revoir,” and turned away.
“A demain,” she said, and as he turned his head back, winked.
“A demain,” Antoine said to himself as he strutted back across the patio, threading his way through the remaining diners without seeing them. “A demain.”
This story is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.