Annual Swan Parade Welcomes Spring in Stratford, ON

5 Apr

For most Canadians, the initial sighting of a robin, patch of grass or tree bud means that spring is in the air.  For the citizens of Stratford Ontario this means the homecoming of the swans to the Avon River.  What started off as a simple yearly routine more than twenty years ago has now become an annual tradition and a world re-known event.  This unusual episode attracts more and more visitors each year including our bordering American neighbours.

        “We’re from Buffalo”, explained a young couple in their mid-thirties.  “We’ve always heard about the swans in Stratford but it’s our first time actually making our way over to see them”.  A few nearby listeners concurred.   “It’s known all over the World”, exclaimed a local Stratford-ite.  “And it just gets bigger and better each year”.
        As I just happened to be near Stratford during the first weekend of April I was lucky enough to witness this dramatic escapade.  As children and adults from all over gradually filled either side of the pathway I learned the reason behind this day from locals and event organisers alike.  Each year, after months of nesting up in their winter quarters next to the Avon, the lengthening of daylight hours trigger a hormonal response in these beauties requiring them to return to the river to re-establish their territories.   Like penguins and lobsters, swans stay with one mate for life and these pairs are seen searching for their nesting site together after returning to the river.
        It was twenty to two in the afternoon on the first Sunday of April and although the lack of sun and chilly winds would’ve otherwise found me curled up at home, the complimentary Tim Hortons coffee and anticipation of these long-necked birds kept me energized.
        Already in the river was a lone swan, Nick, garnering the attention of anyone with a camera or piece of dried corn.  Angela, Nick’s mate, was killed in the summer of 2010; Nick hadn`t re-mated since.  “He`ll probably grieve for several years”, stated a local event organizer, her pale blue eyes saddening slightly as she recalled the tragic event.
        Bagpipes sounded off in the near distance.  It was officially two o’clock and the parade was about to begin.  Neatly moving my way through a crowd that was around twenty people deep I made my way to the front.   Marching Bagpipers cleared the way as a small mix of Chinese, Emperor and Bar-Headed geese followed along, waddling and quacking their way to the designated river entrance.  Then finally, what we all came to see, a pageant of twenty-eight white swans led by a single black one.  The mere sight of them, relishing in the attention of on-lookers and seemingly confused and proud all at the same time, was truly a spectacle like no other.  The sheer number of birds and complexity of it all was impressive enough, even if it was only a two-hour extravaganza.  One by one they stepped into the Avon River and paired off with their mates. 
        “They’re fighting!” a woman pointed out several seconds later.  The show wasn’t over yet.  Off in the middle of the Avon, two males were going at it.  A flap of wing here and a peck of beak there, this was survival of the fittest in its most delicate form.  Often times, territorial fights break out between rival males if additional breeding pairs aren’t held back or transported to alternative waterways.  This was one of those instances.
        As the sun began to peer out from behind the clouds and duos of these modern-day love birds sailed along neck and neck, it was evident:  Spring had sprung.
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