Swans on the March: 28th Stratford Swan Parade

Stratford Swan Parade

Stratford’s swans strut their stuff en route to their summer digs.

Despite snow flurries, a patina of ice on portions of the Avon River, and threats of cancellation, the sun came out and the 28th annual Stratford Swan Parade came off without a hitch, much to the delight of some 1,000 spectators from as far away as India, China, and Mexico.

Many people think of Stratford’s swans as a sort of logo for the Stratford Festival, which was founded in 1953. Indeed, many swans desport themselves on the bank just below the Festival Theatre during the summer. But there were swans on the Avon many years before the Festival arrived.

In fact, this year’s parade marked 100 years of swans on the Avon. Stratford’s first pair of mute swans arrived in 1918, the gift of one J.C. Garden, who may have been inspired by Ben Jonson’s nickname for that great Stratfordian, William Shakespeare — Sweet Swan of Avon. The idea caught on and the population grew, helped along by Queen Elizabeth the Second who in 1967 gave Canada six swans, two of which found a home in Stratford. As a nod to the herd’s royal connection, two of today’s swans (a mating pair appropriately enough) are named Kate and William. (And, yes, “herd” is the proper term for a group of swans.)

Mute swans are not native to the area, so Stratford’s birds are “pinioned” to prevent all but the shortest flights and are cared for by the city during the colder months of the year. They reside comfortably in heated winter quarters with a pool. Come the warmth of Spring (or what passes for it in Canada) they are returned to the freedom of the river.

Originally, the city simply opened the doors and shooed the swans 2,000 feet down Lakeside Drive to the river, but the sight of some twenty swans waddling along is kind of irresistible and as word spread the crowds grew. In 1990, the city made its annual swan release a full-fledged event.

Stratford Swan Parade Pipers

The Stratford Police Pipes and Drums add a dramatic touch to the Stratford Swan Parade

Today, the event is marked by a competition among Stratford businesses for the most imaginatively decorated topiary swan, plenty of activities for children, and puppet shows. The grand finale occurs when Stratford’s swans are ceremoniously piped to their summer home by the Stratford Police Pipes and Drums, resplendent in their kilts. It’s all over in about ten minutes, but people linger along the banks of the Avon to watch as pairs fan out to scout nesting sites or exult in the short flights their pinioned wings allow.