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In economics, a “black swan” refers to an unexpected event. But in Stratford, Ont., a black swan leading two dozen of its white cousins as they all waddle down the street is not unexpected at all. In fact, it’s the highlight of the Parade of the Swans, a major annual event that marks the start of spring and draws throngs of onlookers.

Stratford’s swans are kept in a winter shelter during the colder months — from Halloween until the first Sunday in April — after which they emerge and are guided the block-anda- half to their summer home on the Avon River, which runs through town. “The river gets kind of dead in the winter,” says Quin Malott, Stratford’s parks and forestry manager. “But once the birds are on it, they bring it to life.”

The tradition started in 1918, when a pair of swans was first kept in Stratford over the winter and brought to the river in spring. After those birds died, however, the custom ended and wasn’t revived until the late 1950s, when new swans were introduced. The parade that takes place today didn’t begin until 1990, but has been growing in popularity ever since.

This year, more than 2,000 people — some carrying Swan Quest maps that mark the locations of swan topiaries around town, some sporting flamboyant paper swan hats — watched the swans strut their stuff. In a town best known for a theatre festival that highlights the works of Shakespeare, it was a performance worthy of the bard himself.

The herd of swans marches down the street in Stratford, Ontario. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

The swans head toward their summer home o the Avon River, which runs through town. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

Some of Stratford's 23 famous swans are the descendants of a pair from the Queen's royal herd of mute swans. The mute, which can actually be quite noisy, is easy to distinguish by the black knob on the top of its beak. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

Stratford's solitary black swan, a species of Australian origin, leads the rest of the herd. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

Parade onlookers enjoy the festivities. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

The second most common colour of swan in Stratford is actually green: these extravagant topiary birds grace storefronts throughout the downtown. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

Swan Quest maps mark the locations of swan topiaries around town. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

Face-painting is part of the celebration to welcome spring to Stratford. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

More than 2,000 people came out to see the swans this year. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)

Stratford's popular swan Clyde was buried next to the river when he died in 2000. (Photo: Matthew Liteplo)