People visiting the San Diego State University Campus in the summer may have noticed a large number of birds swooping around near the Viejas Arena. This year, a noticeably large number of cliff swallows have taken residence in the area. Though it’s not uncommon for cliff swallows to live and nest at SDSU each year, this year seems to have more than usual.
Cliff swallows are famous for their clock-like return to the San Juan Capistrano Mission each year. Their return is immortalized in the song by Leon Rene and sung by the Ink Spots in 1940. Cliff swallows nest in the mission each year. Cliff swallows also “come back” to San Diego at almost the same time of the year. This year, probably due to the warm, dry weather, they were late.
It isn’t a mystery as to why they like to live at SDSU. Several new buildings, as well as many older ones, make great places to build a nest. Cliff swallows like to nest where there are short overhangs on square buildings. Stucco and other “sticky” coatings on the outside walls also help. These mimic the cliffs were the swallows would normally nest. Having Lake Murray nearby is an asset when it comes to gathering mud for their nests.
Unfortunately, one of the issues they have on campus is that aggressive house sparrows sometimes appropriate those nests. For example, one can see sparrows using old cliff-swallow nests in the overhang in front of fraternity houses on 55th street. House sparrows are considered an invasive species and often force out native species by stealing nesting cavities and killing the current nest owner’s young.
It’s also important to have a good population of flying insects in the area not far from where they nest. The watered lawns and trees near the arena help propagate those insects. The best time to see these swallows is in the morning. They can be seen swooping around for insects on the south side of Viejas Arena. They communicate with each other with a short, buzzing chirp. After collecting food, they return to their nests which could be anywhere on campus, not necessarily in the immediate area. Cliff swallows generally leave the area in September.