I am so sorry, but it can’t all be quotes from nineteenth century French poets and, as I think we have established by now, I have rather poor impulse control. As the title suggests to any taxonomists in the audience, I shall be writing about swans and injury (rather than illness, per se).
As firm hands pressed into my slightly yielding flesh last Friday, I found myself discussing whether the much vaunted statement that a “swan can break a man’s arm with its wing” could possibly be true. The Mute Swan is large for a bird and can be pretty aggressive (I myself have been attacked whilst water-borne), but it is still pretty small compared to a man. While it does have very strong shoulder (wing) muscles, it also has very light-weight, hollow bones and I fear would be a poor match for the human ulna or radius (and hasn’t a ghost of a chance against the sturdier humerus – which, sadly, is not the funny bone, though is quite close). There is also likely to be a height issue as I don’t believe the attacking swan would be able to bring sufficient force to bear against the defensive arm if it were also flying. So, as a starting point either the victim would have to bend-down or the swan would need to be standing on a box (I don’t think swans can perch – they’ve not got the feet for it). Even with this (frankly improbable in any real world wing-on-arm engagement) assistance, I strongly suspect that the arm would emerge the victor.
In an attempt to over-turn the apparently inevitable defeat of the swan, I considered modifications to either of the combatants which might lead to a feathery triumph. I did wonder if the arm was possessed by an elderly lady, and if she had been denied access to calcium-rich sustenance for some months before the trial, whether this would give the beaked challenger a shot at the prize. I am concerned that the ethics committee, not to mention AgeUK, will probably have issues with me ever being allowed to test this theory. We may just have to hope that random chance brings an osteoporosis sufferer into conflict with Cygnus olor and see what happens.
The alternative is to tackle the swan side of the equation. I rejected bionic or exoskeletal enhancement as being (a) too expensive and (b) lying in the realms of science fiction. The swan is not very elegant during take-off or landing and its flying style is designed for range rather than speed. If we could accelerate the once ugly duckling to a greater velocity than it can achieve unaided, then this, combined with its not insubstantial mass, could provide the kinetic energy necessary to break a chap’s forearm. Clearly, the swan would have to manoeuvre – or be lashed – so that it struck the target wing-first. I originally considered a trebuchet or mangonel, but fear these may lack both the muzzle velocity or accuracy for our needs. I think we must look to a mortar or heavy artillery piece as our launch mechanism – and I think we will have to insist that the swan is trussed-up pretty tightly to ensure that it doesn’t move in “flight” and interfere with the targetting. A decent alternative would be to use a frozen swan – this would avoid in-transit flapping and increase the hardness of the bird (which will be a boon on impact). I think, under these circumstances, I can guarantee victory for the swan – though given that it is unlikely to survive the experience it will be a rather pyrrhic one. Given the fact that the Queen has nabbed all the swans on these isles (though presumably only the residents, surely she can’t claim migrants like the Bewick or Whooper?), any testing of this theory will have to take place at an off-shore black site – but there do seem to be plenty of these around (if it helps, I can try and source an orange jumpsuit for the swan).
So, in conclusion, I think a swan can break a man’s arm – but it will need help and, in my most promising scenario, would need to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Still, my avian friends, just think of the glory!