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View Full Version : Can a swan really break a man's arm?


mbk
02-06-2004, 09:35 AM
It appears that everyone has at some point been told this one, generally as a child. Is it just a ruse devised by parents to prevent little ones "worrying" the wild fowl or is there truth to the persistent factoid?

The local duck pond (with it's occasional visiting swans) remains a safe, serene haven of tranquility rather than a blood soaked battlefield overrun with killer swans. This and the fact that a swan's skeleton is designed to float and fly rather than swing around in trees and lob the odd rock like human skeletons would lead me to believe that the swans are just bluffing.

Any thoughts appreciated!

Cheers,
Matt

Q.E.D.
02-06-2004, 09:44 AM
I've never heard this one. Must be a regional thing. That said, the only way I can imagine a swan breaking a person's arm is for it to be frozen and fired out of a cannon. Otherwise, no way.

Grey
02-06-2004, 09:47 AM
A goose bite will give an adult a large nasty bruise. Trust me.

I doubt it could break a child arm though.

Capt. Ridley's Shooting Party
02-06-2004, 09:51 AM
I've heard this before, I've also heard it about geese. I do know that swans can get vicious when they have young, and geese are often used as guard geese, instead of dogs around here.

tremorviolet
02-06-2004, 09:52 AM
I'd believe it. Swans are a lot bigger and stronger than they look. We row by some everyday and they're really fierce, particularly if they have goslings around. And I've accidentally caught one in the neck with an oar going full speed in an eight and it wasn't even fazed.

Tamerlane
02-06-2004, 09:54 AM
I don't know about breaking an adult's arm, but I suppose it is remotely possible with a small child. They are very strong animals and one was once observed crushing a metal pail. They are certainly strong enough to harm a child in some way and I believe there are two recorded instances of them killing one ( at least one of those involving a drowing - a big pissed off Mute Swan could certainly make it very hard to to keep your head above water ).

An adult on land would be a whole lot less vulnerable, but could probably pick some nasty bruises in an encounter. They're certainly not easily intimidated.

- Tamerlane

Olentzero
02-06-2004, 09:57 AM
The version I heard as a child was that the swan's wingbones, being fairly light and flexible due to its hollow structure, could act like a very effective whip. If one were to snap its wing at you like someone snaps a wet towel, the force would be sufficient to break your arm. A couple of quick searches on Google haven't yielded anything, so I defer to our resident ornithologists on the matter.

Jojo
02-06-2004, 10:07 AM
I have also heard this one. According to this, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-24008,00.html) they can

This also (http://www.walnet.org/stanley_woods/muteswanz/muteswanz.html)

DougC
02-06-2004, 10:23 AM
- - - I won't believe it until I've got a real news report of it. Some years back in the St Louis newspaper there was a story if a man who was drowned aby a mute swan--what happened was (for whatever reason) it knocked him out of the small 2-person boat in which he was fishing out on a lake, and then kept attacking him on the water and he couldn't breathe enough. Mute swans don't normally frequent my locale, they only pass through migrating. Perhaps a news search of newspapers near their regular habitats is in order.
- I know that Canadian geese try no such thing--they just bite and flap their wings. Any adult can just give them a light kick and send them reeling. I had a job that took me around to lots of office parks, many had ornamental lakes that the geese would congregate at. At first they would refuse to get out of your way and sometimes one or two would snap at me but when I kicked one it would let out a squawk, and then all of them would jump up and fly away. Goose crap an inch deep everywhere. A couple's nice to look at, but 300 in an area the size of a tennis court is a mess.
~

Really Not All That Bright
02-06-2004, 01:54 PM
I have also heard this one. According to this, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-24008,00.html) they can

This also (http://www.walnet.org/stanley_woods/muteswanz/muteswanz.html)

The first link isn't exactly what I'd call evidence, and the second misspells the word downy which makes me question its validity too.

I got in what amounted to a fistfight with a swan in England (at Ninesprings park in Yeovil, Somerset) when I was about seven, and while its beak left me a nasty bruise and a cut that required stitches, it didn't seem any stronger than me.

Jojo
02-06-2004, 06:19 PM
The first link isn't exactly what I'd call evidence, and the second misspells the word downy which makes me question its validity too.

They were just things I turned up on a google search - I didn't claim them to be proof beyond all doubt. But, since the first link provides witness accounts, I'm happy to give it the benefit of the doubt until I hear some kind of evidence to the contrary, especially since anecdotal evidence is about as good as you're going to get with this kind of subject.

Have you ever looked at a big male swan's neck girth? They look pretty powerful to me. I wouldn't pick a fight with one. Maybe the swan you fought was a female? Or maybe it was only young or maybe you caught it in a good mood that day and it let you go? Or maybe it realised you were only a child and didn't see you as a real threat so it just did enough to scare you away, who knows?

But if you were only seven at the time I doubt you would be able to beat a full-grown male swan in a fight. So I suspect you weren't fighting a full-grown male swan that seriously wanted to hurt you.

Laughing Lagomorph
02-06-2004, 06:39 PM
I'd believe it. Swans are a lot bigger and stronger than they look. We row by some everyday and they're really fierce, particularly if they have goslings around. ...

The term for a young swan is a cygnet. Please pardon my pedantry.

ltfire
02-06-2004, 07:38 PM
Quote from DougC

- - - I won't believe it until I've got a real news report of it. Some years back in the St Louis newspaper there was a story if a man who was drowned aby a mute swan-

That wasn't a mute swan, that was one of those rare duck-like birds that don't cause an ehco when they quack. :D

elfkin477
02-06-2004, 09:04 PM
Have you ever looked at a big male swan's neck girth? They look pretty powerful to me. I wouldn't pick a fight with one. Maybe the swan you fought was a female? Or maybe it was only young or maybe you caught it in a good mood that day and it let you go? Or maybe it realised you were only a child and didn't see you as a real threat so it just did enough to scare you away, who knows?



Swans are also huge

Size of average adult
length: male = 59 inches, female = 57 inches (from bill to tail)
weight: male = 28 pounds, female = 23 pounds

http://www.scz.org/animals/s/tswan.html

Mute swans are even bigger (one 160 cm is just about as long as I am tall!)

The Mute swan is one of the largest birds still capable of flight, reaching a length of 140-160 cm (including tail and neck), a wing span of 200-240 cm and a weight of 8-12 kg.
http://www.dierinbeeld.nl/animal_files/birds/mute_swan/

They brought a stuffed one (taxidermy) into my Wildlife management class, and we throught it was pretty big, about 4' from bill to tail. Then they told us it hadn't been full grown yet when it died. :eek: Not too much later I got to "meet" some living adult swans, and yeah, they're bigger than poor stuffie was.

This IL forestry article claims they break legs not arms. http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/natbltn/600-699/nb616.htm (funny we can't find news articles about this or arms, though...)

Laughing Lagomorph
02-06-2004, 09:30 PM
I was able to find this:

Man suffers broken bones in swan attack (http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_604769.html?menu=)

Here is another item about a woman whose wrist was broken during a swan attack:
http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/front/2001/0525/fro3.htm

tremorviolet
02-06-2004, 09:31 PM
The term for a young swan is a cygnet. Please pardon my pedantry.

:smack: Doh! I totally know this too. And I was just playing Saint-Saens' Le Cygne the other day...

Laughing Lagomorph
02-06-2004, 09:33 PM
That first article is short on some details. It says the man suffered broken bones but it doesn't say which bones. From reading it again it might just mean facial bones (not that that isn't pretty traumatic).

brachyrhynchos
02-07-2004, 12:38 AM
That was my take on it too, Laughing Lagomorph. And it's also not clear to me whether the case of the woman with the broken wrist broke it on direct contact with the swan or as a result of the fall she took.

I've received a few injuries in my work with birds, mostly from bites or grabs from taloned feet. The hardest hits I've taken from flapping wings are from Rock Doves and Mourning Doves, and quite frankly, they smart a lot more than you'd think. (But, then again, maybe I'm a delicate flower :D )

Can a large, aggressive swan break an arm or leg bone with a direct hit? I suppose it's possible if the bone was hit at the right spot or was in a weakened state. But I've never heard of a specific case.

Horatio Hellpop
02-07-2004, 02:08 AM
I'd never heard of this in my life! There's a big controversy in Maryland about whether to slaughter mute swans in the Chesapeake (They're an artificially, and recently, introduced species and their population exploded). Seems this would be a good argument in the "pro" column....

Charlie Tan
02-07-2004, 02:43 AM
I've never heard this one. Must be a regional thing. That said, the only way I can imagine a swan breaking a person's arm is for it to be frozen and fired out of a cannon. Otherwise, no way.
Doing a handy (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/member.php?userid=90), are ya?

Eleusis
02-07-2004, 02:58 AM
Meh. Q.E.D.'s post wasn't even close to Handy-like. Handy would have posted something like "wow they must be strong". [/hijack]

mmmiiikkkeee
02-07-2004, 04:45 AM
Yes, another who's heard this same rumor. I'd say it's highly unlikely... one of those cases where if you held your arm just right and the bird swung just right - but using those same perfect circumstances most any 25lb animal could break someone's arm.

I think the beating you'd get from a bird would be limited to bruising and a very severe case of embarassment. A lot of those feathery bastards will fly up in your face and peck for your eyes, and while you're overwhelmed and covering up the big ones will give you a beating with their wings - they can flap them powerfully enough to lift 25lbs of meat off the ground just from the breeze. But I still can't help thinking the bird's arm would break long before yours - but again under those perfect circumstances...

The whole thing could just be meant to caution people from trying to grab a goose/swan and getting a beating and especially a public embarassment. Those birds will put up a much bigger fight than anyone would imagine (assuming they're fighting for their lives) and you'll take more punishment than you bargained for, but barring face pecking or flying impacts I doubt they are really dangerous to an adult; especially one who's ready for them.

casdave
02-07-2004, 07:16 AM
I saw a swan nearly drown a big labrador dog once.

Said dog decided it was going to jump in the lake (as is the case with labradors)and chase the said swan.

The swan ddin't even dignify the dog by so much as appearing to notice it, until the dog was just close enough.

The swan then struck down on the dogs head so hard that the dog disappeared under water for some time before it emerged spluttering for breath.

The dog retreated and fast as it could go, still struggling to breathe.

The swan continued serenely onward, as if it had absentmindedly slapped a small but annoying child down.

If it had wanted to finish off the job with the dog I got the impression it would have been well within its abilities, and not much of an effort either.

Angua
02-07-2004, 09:28 AM
I've heard this one a lot. Mainly it was when we were rowing, standard practice was, if a swan approached your blades, pull blades in fast - don't upset the swan. Of course the pulling the blades in fast may have been due to the fact that blades on an eights boat travelling at full speed is likely to injure a swan, which would firstly not be pleasant, and secondly, according to urban myth, be illegal in the UK.

Angua
02-07-2004, 09:31 AM
And of course, I fail to answer the question with that anecdote - the reason we weren't too upset the swans was that upset swan = angry swan = will try and attack you, and you may end up with broken bones. Personally, I think that the blades were more likely to snap.

Iteki
02-07-2004, 10:31 AM
I have heard this one many times as well. I have always understood that the danger is the speed of the swans "strike" similar to a cobra (this is what I have heard, leave me alone!) powered by their powerful knecks. The break comes from the rapid, forceful strike from the beak. Is what I have heard....

mbk
02-10-2004, 12:44 PM
Many thanks for all the research! I get the impression that the wing-against-arm (or leg) attack that seems to form the bulk of received wisdom is highly unlikely; whilst I can't claim a great deal of medical, ornithological or physics knowledge I'd think that regardless of how strong a set of muscles are, this strength is only so good as the strength of the bones to which they attach - ie a swan's wing bones would snap if it's strong muscles exerted too much force against a human adult's arm or leg.

The beak attack, propelled at high velocity via strong neck muscles and structurally strong vertebrae (compared to long, thin wing bones) that Iteki and others have mentioned appears to me to be slightly more plausible.

I think we can safely say that an angry swan is quite capable of causing a human some damage (either directly or indirectly, eg forcing one to fall etc.) and therefore if telling kids the story about broken adult arms keeps the little treasures from tormenting the swans then this is perhaps for the greater good?

Oh, Angua - re Swans and UK law, according to http://www.rspb.org/birds/guide/m/muteswan/swans_and_the_law.asp - "As native wild birds, swans enjoy statutory protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and it is an offence to intentionally injure, take or kill a wild swan."
More swan related royal pomp and ceremony info at http://www.rspb.org/birds/guide/m/muteswan/swans_and_humans.asp

Cheers,
Matt