Swan Kills Man

In several recorded cases, swans have killed small children. This report marks the first time I've heard of a swan killing a grown man. But as readers of The Book of Deadly Animals will recall, territorial aggression is a male swan's default setting. 

A swan generally attacks by striking with the bony knobs on the front of its wings. In at least one case of aggression against a child, the swan seemed to deliberately hold its victim underwater to drown him. That may explain the Illinois man's death. 

'Killer' swan attacks, pursues a Chicago-area man until he drowns - latimes.com

Swans "are territorial and can be quite aggressive when threatened. This aggression makes them good at driving off geese; it can also lead to tragedy.

Anthony Hensley was a 37-year-old married father of two who worked for a company that uses dogs and swans to shoo pesky geese from properties in the area. Hensley had taken to a kayak Sunday morning to check on the swans in a Des Plaines-area pond when one of the larger birds turned on him, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Cook County sheriff’s investigators believe Hensley either got too close to the swan or the swan’s nesting area."


An informative exchange from Facebook:

  • James Smith It seems to me that Roger Caras quotes an episode--I want to say from Great Britain--where a swan attacked a man and precipitated a heart attack, though I don't recall if the results were fatal or not. I have to say that using a swan as goose control strikes me as a really foolish concept--you have an even larger and nastier bird to deal with; unless it's pinioned, no guarantee it will stay put; and they're not exactly trainable. (In my experience, mute swans are the waterfowl equivalent of abusive drunks: they may walk funny, but don't get close enough to let them swing at you!)
  • Gordon Grice James, in his _Dangerous to Man_, Caras mentions a child killed by a swan in Ranelar Park, England. He doesn't give details, but the context seems to suggest the bird accomplished this by flogging the child with its bony "elbows." He also mentions a child drowned by a swan in Massachusetts in 1938. And he mentions that swans have broken the legs of children and the arms of "people" (adults?) by flogging. I'm not seeing a description of the heart attack incident in this particular volume, though he may have written about it elsewhere.
  • James Smith I'll have to re-check my waterfowl books--I couldn't find it in my edition of Dangerous to Man either, so it may not have been Caras I'm thinking of. The swans in the photos on your blog seemed to be trumpeters or another native variety, but in every case where I've heard of a swan going beyond trying to bully or frighten a human, and administering a real beating, it's been a mute swan. These birds are a serious nuisance in the East, because the feral populations have virtually no natural enemies save a very bold coyote or bobcat, or an eagle that feels exceptionally fit that day, and they're protected by public sentiment...people who hate Canada geese cringe at the notion of killing a swan, or even wrecking the nests.
  • Gordon Grice Public sentiment is an odd thing, isn't it? I've recently read about a town in California where stray roosters are attacking children and harassing passers-by. . . yet no one seems to have thought of just capturing them or eating them. Swans, of course, carry the symbolic freight of beauty and love, which seems to blind people to how tough and dangerous they are.
  • Gordon Grice Speaking of Caras, I only checked the 1964 edition of Dangerous to Man--it didn't occur to me before, but maybe the incident you're remembering is covered in the later (1975?) edition?
  • Gordon Grice Oh, and I think you're right about the species in my pics. The aggressive one I wrote about in The Book of Dangerous Animals was a black swan; it was fenced and unable to really get at anyone, but it certainly made efforts to attack human males and bit my shoes as I stood on a bridge many times.
  • James Smith It is! I knew I had two copies kicking around, so I checked the 2nd one, which is the 1975 edition, and there it was. It took place in Montauk, NY, not England--the guy had evidently been messing with the cygnets and the cob attacked him.
  • James Smith I've had less interaction with black swans, but "Darth" sounded like a prime example of the ones I have met, they certainly were unpleasant and probably a child would have been at risk around them. Mute swans, though, can achieve twice the bulk of a black swan--26 lb as opposed to 13--and I would guess this makes them a more dangerous bird at close quarters. Interestingly, in Central Asia, where there are still wild mute swans--and they may even be at risk--the birds are wary and shy. It appears that it's only in the West where they're habituated to people that they're essentially the waterfowl answer to razorback hogs.
  • Gordon Grice Yeah, that sounds like a significant weight difference, especially when the victims are children. I hadn't thought about habituation as an issue with swans. The more I learn, the more significant it seems, across the kingdom. For the shark project I'm working on, a marine biologist told me reef ecosytems are more productive overall when the animals within it have to live in fear of sharks. The "landscape of fear" is the healthy way for most animals to live, but we Americans specialize in ruining that fear, in trying to live close to animals that would be better off keeping their distance from us. Our disneyfied attitudes are bad ecology.

Photography by Wayne T. Allison


  1. Funny how in the commentaries, people seems reluctant to believe that such a thing is possible...

  2. Oh, I definitely believe it can happen!

  3. Swans don't seem to fit our cultural stereotypes of a dangerous animal. On the other hand, you can always find people willing to believe almost any dangerous story about spiders or snakes, no matter how far-fetched.

  4. Adult male swimmer n Riga, Latvia was killed by a swan.

  5. I didn't know about this case case in Riga. Do you have any details or links?

  6. Folks,

    Mute swans are non-native and the species involved. Tundra or Trumpeter Swans are native to North America and do not display this type of behavior.

  7. Yes, you're right. I've added a good exchange from Facebook which gives more context.


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