“Sleep easy, your arms are safe.” Dan Keel, author of Swan: Portrait of a Majestic Bird: From Mythical Meanings to the Modern Day, answers this pressing question – can a swan really break your arm?
Myths and stories about majestic swans and their magical powers have been passed down for many thousands of years across a vast array of cultures. But the most common myth surrounding swans is that they can break your arm.
While a swan’s beak could leave a nasty bruise, it’s the wing that seems the only remotely feasible weapon capable of breaking the limb of a fully grown human. In fact, more than 2,000 newtons of force are required to break the radius bones which extend from our thumbs to our elbows.
But how much force is generated by a swan’s mighty wing? To calculate this we need to use a series of formulae based on the assumptions that a swan’s wing weighs roughly 700g and that its wingbeat is one metre tall and flaps at 160 times per minute. By using some crude maths we can estimate that its wing generates around 80 newtons of force – far short of the 2,000 newtons required. Sleep easy, your arms are safe.
Those desperate to disprove this theory will inevitably have friends or friends-of-friends whose arms were broken by nasty swans. But upon careful scrutiny I can guarantee that these ‘victims’ were spooked by an angry swan, fell to the floor and broke their arm on a rock.
What do I do when swimming near swans, or if one swims at me?
We know a swan’s wing can keep a body mass of 12.2 kg (26.8 lb) airborne for very long periods when migrating. Why is this relevant? Well, it suggests the swan generates a decent amount of power from its large, broad wings and strong chest muscles. Sadly, while 80 newtons of force are insufficient to break your arm, they are more than enough to submerge a large mammal underwater for a number of minutes.
Summer newspapers are peppered with dark tales of pet dogs being drowned by swans after jumping into lakes and rivers in the misguided hope of playing with these big white beasts. There is only one case (in the USA) of a swan drowning a human being – a canoeist who ventured too close to the nest.
So what should you do if one swims too close? Get out of the water as soon as possible – you’re much safer on land – especially during the mating season when swans are very hostile.
This article is from the January 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer. Click here to subscribe to the magazine. Swan: Portrait of a Majestic Bird, from Mythical Meanings to the Modern Day by Dan Keel is out now.
“I survived a swan attack”. Read about what happened when the Henley Mermaids ran into a territorial swan on their swim down the length of the River Thames.To see all the online content from the January 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer, visit the 'Rest & Reflection' page.