Monday, March 22, 2010

In Which Disney, St. Joseph, San Juan Capistrano, and Birds Are Connected

Yesterday, I wrote anecdotes about the traditions, and personal recollections, inspired by the Feast of St. Joseph. Many of these traditions about food and helping the less fortunate are still observed by Italians and others all over the world.

There is one other legendary tradition connected to St. Joseph's Day, and that is the annual return of the Cliff Swallows from their winter home in Argentina to  the San Juan Capistrano Mission near San Diego, a migration of over 6,000 miles. This is a cause for a week-long celebration in its own right, as reported in stories such as this one from Wikipedia:

"According to legend the birds, who have visited the San Juan Capistrano area every Summer for centuries, first took refuge at the Mission when an irate innkeeper began destroying their mud nests.....The Mission's location near two rivers made it an ideal location for the swallows to nest, as there was a constant supply of the insects on which they feed, and the young birds are well-protected inside the ruins of the old stone church..."

In 1939, a live radio broadcast of the swallows' return inspired Leon René  to write a song, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano", and over the years it became a popular standard:

           "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 swallows flew out to sea"

Not to be outdone, the tiny city of Hinckley Ridge Ohio celebrated its own annual migratory homecoming: the return of the Buzzards on March 15.  According to this amusing recent story in USA Today:

"There will be free tours, live bird presentations and buzzard-themed activities, such as throwing stuffed birds through a hole, says Cleveland Metroparks marketing specialist Dan Crandall. 'It's kind of like Groundhog day … it's really cool.'
"No one knows for sure why buzzards flock to Hinckley from their southern sojourns. Some say it results from an 18th-century hunt that produced tons of carcasses; others believe it has more to do with a hospitable habitat for the scavenging birds."

By way of update, it appears that the swallows are beginning to abandon their tradition of returning to Capistrano (almost none showed up in 2009 according to the Boston Globe) but the buzzards did not disappoint, as reported in the above-referenced USA Today piece.

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This all brought to mind a 20-minute Oscar-Winning Short Film from the year (you guessed it) 1969, called "It's Tough To Be A Bird."  I wonder how many readers have ever seen it, or remember it.  Here's an article devoted to the film.

Although it had a great deal of live-action footage, Disney took home the Oscar for this film in the Short --Cartoon category.  I seem to recall it double-featured with a Kurt-Russell Disney Feature called "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes".

"It's Tough To Be A Bird" was part bird-documentary and part animated comedy.  It succeeded brilliantly in providing huge amounts of information about bird history, anatomy, and ecology and delivered it with great humor, at times silly and often surprisingly sophisticated.  To me it's one of Disney's most entertaining efforts in the short animated film form.  Today, it seems to be all but forgotten and unavailable. 

Happily, I found the entire thing on line, in three parts, and I have included the links below so you can share in the fun (embedding was not allowed, just click on each link).

Informative and good natured, it certainly inspired more respect and affection for our feathered friends (whose reputation at the time was still reeling from the Hitchcock treatment).  In typical Disney fashion, great live nature footage (for its day) was combined with breakneck animation, especially from our hapless narrator, pictured, coincidentally here, in St. Joseph's Day red.  The final animated montage is breathtaking in its hilarity, its animated images from pop culture and mischievous musical score positively Python-esque!

The film is very much a part of its time (the styles, the technology, the music, should produce groans and giggles) but the sentiment, and the fascination with these creatures, is timeless, and universal.

What I seem to recall most clearly, what stuck in my child's brain all these years, is the segment of the film devoted to the buzzards' return to Hinckley Ridge, accompanied by a song performed by Ruth Buzzi (of "Laugh-In") in a Mrs. Miller-style tremolo. 

Here are the links:    PART 1 --Why birds have it tough  PART 2--History, and flight  PART 3 --Buzzards, etc.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the links, never saw this one before. That final montage is absolutely absurd, but...groovy. My mother adores birds -- we used to listen to a tape of bird calls when she drove me to school!