THE BLOG

A Parade of Swans?

04/19/2015 11:26 EDT | Updated 06/19/2015 05:59 EDT

We've all heard of a pride of lions and a gaggle of geese, but a parade of swans? Only in Stratford, Ontario, and only in the spring. It happens every April a few weeks before the opening of the theatre season, the festival that put this town on the map. When the Stratford swans are paraded into the Avon River to resume the life aquatic, it's no ordinary dunking.

Because these are no ordinary birds. In a throwback to their elite heritage, Stratford's herd of thirty or so British and Polish swans lead a life of privilege and ease. In 1154, English King Richard Lionheart decreed swans were royal birds that nobody was permitted to own, hunt or eat without permission from the king.

Apart from their kind of loutish disposition, there's not much medieval about these swans. They spend the winter in a modern barn behind the hockey arena (we're in Canada, remember) where they have their own pool, two squawk-prone Chinese geese as security guards, and a special high-protein diet. These birds are living the 21st century life: they have everything but massage therapists and a personal trainer.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

The Stratford swans are cared for by a team from the Parks Department's Community Services headed by Quinn Mallott, who's also responsible for horticulture, trees and cemeteries. He took over from the late Robert Miller, a retiree and swan buff who for years was the town's Honorary Keeper of the Swans.

Swans are monogamous birds who stick together for life, with some notable exceptions (see the "Bonnie and Clyde" video among the selection narrated by Stratford resident Colm Feore, available on Stratford's website). There are four couples this year already, and most of the 18 singles are likely to pair up once on the river. When they form a couple they're given names, like Josephine and George or Nick and Lacey, so the team can refer to them more easily.

"There are twenty or so swans in this year's parade," Mr. Mallott said. "And every year, they start getting excited when they hear the pipe band warming up. The older ones seem to know what that means. The parade has been happening on and off since 1936 and has been a formal parade for the past 25 years."

A good-humoured excitement is the flavour of the day, making this town, and this parade, worth coming out for. Before and after, you can have food and drinks, buy souvenirs, and totally act like a tourist. It's that kind of place. According to National Geographic Traveler, Stratford is "the type of walkable wholesome town that Rodgers and Hammerstein might write a musical about."

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

Here's how it goes: First you hear the stirring strains of a pipe band march like "Scotland the Brave." A lone white Chinese goose turns the corner onto Lakeside Drive and warms up the crowd for the appearance of the band and the rest of the birds.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

Then the Stratford Police Pipes and Drums, all kilted out in red tartan, sporrans and caps, come marching smartly along. The swans follow closely behind, doing their best to march along in time. But sadly, they've got no rhythm. Those big webbed feet are born to paddle. Never mind their graceful image; think Jemima Puddleduck instead of Karen Kain. Swans only look elegant on the water.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg

Part serious and part sendup, Stratford's swan parade is a good reason to get out of the city in the spring. If it doesn't make you crack a smile, there's something wrong with your fun button.

All that fresh air can make you hungry. Before you leave, grab a bite at one of the onsite food trucks. Better still, walk a few blocks to Montforte on Wellington and treat yourself to a small plate or two, a dessert and, of course, a bag of fabulous artisanal cheese to take home.

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Photo: Lin Stranberg