Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
For many Stratford residents, spring hasn’t really sprung until the swans are back swimming in the Avon River.
And judging by the crowds this past Sunday, the same could be said for the thousands of people from across the region who, despite the less-than-spring-like weather, came from as far as Toronto, Windsor and even the United States to watch the return of the city’s famous waterfowl.
Led by the Stratford Pipes and Drums, 22 white swans, one black swan and two geese were led from their winter quarters behind the Allman Arena along a route lined with onlookers snapping pictures.
“It’s windy and chilly, but it was really amusing,” said Paul Ragogna, who was attending the festivities for the first time with his wife Lisa and their two sons, Ben, 5, and Sam, 2.
“(The kids) got their (swan) hats, they saw the swans, now we’ve got to do the bouncy castle,” he added, while waiting in a long line for one of the several kids’ activities available.
The parade was also a first for Nathan Bean, 6, who attended the parade with his father Daren, younger sister Sarah and grandmother Joan.
He was particularly taken by the lone black swan, who from the get-go strutted a few feet ahead of the white-feathered herd.
“The black swan was cool; I didn’t even know there were black ones,” he said with a big smile.
Also on hand to capture the uniquely-Stratford event were Chinese and Korean language television stations and a reporter from Canadian Geographic magazine, whose story is expected to appear in the June issue.
Despite no official tally, organizers are claiming a record turnout for this year’s weekend event, which in addition to the ceremonial parade included live entertainment, free activities like face painting, guided swan tours, horse-drawn carriage rides and costume try-ons with the Stratford Festival.
The Swan Quest contest also made a return, with 12 participating businesses decorating a topiary bird. Rheo Thompson’s Candies’ quilled swan was voted People’s Choice.
“We’ve had a great response to everything,” Cathy Rehberg of the Stratford Tourism Alliance said Sunday afternoon. “I’ve heard comments from a number of people that it’s been a great family weekend.”
The parade began at 2 p.m. sharp in honour of the late Robert Miller, the city’s long-time honourary keeper of the swans.
Ted Blowes of Stratford’s Volunteer Civic Beautification and Environmental Awareness Committee, which organizers the annual festivities, remembered Miller for his “unbelievable job looking after our swans and getting them on the world stage.”
While the weather may not have seemed swan friendly, the birds’ desire to return to the water and establish territories is actually hormonal – triggered by the lengthening daylight hours.
Stratford’s swans are divided into two groups – breeders (mated pairs) and non-breeders (swans younger than three). The non-breeders will spend most of the summer on the west end of the river while the mated pairs tend to rule the middle and east end.