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Do Birds That Eat Humans Really Exist?

There is a Maori legend of the Te Hokioi that would prey on humans. The Te Hokioi was an immense bird with black and white feathers, a red crest, and vicious talons. But unlike most myths, this bird did exist: the Haast’s eagle that went extinct over 500 years ago. It makes you wonder: do birds that eat humans really exist?

There are birds in existence who have supposedly eaten humans. The African crowned eagle is one of them. Many other birds have been known to kill humans, the most notorious being the cassowaries. While some birds are capable of carrying off toddlers, it is not as common as hoaxes have claimed. 

Birds are not prone to seeking out live human flesh for a meal. (If you are dead, you are fair game for plenty of scavengers.) Nor would any bird in existence actively hunt an adult for lunch. But toddlers should be wary of a few breeds. Some birds can harm and possibly kill an adult if provoked, some of which might surprise you.

Haast’s Eagle: The Birds That Could Eat Humans

Maori people have long told of the Te Hokioi, a bird that could eat humans. But Western scientists considered this enormous bird nothing more than a myth.

Sir Julius von Haast in the 1870s came upon skeletons in swamp deposits. But because the skull and bill of the bird bore a resemblance to a vulture, it was classified as a scavenger, not a hunter. 

It wasn’t until 2013 that the true nature of the Haast’s eagle was brought to light. Researchers at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch and University of New South Wales re-examined the skeletons using modern technology.

What they discovered, in the words of Paul Scofield, was a bird “designed as a killing machine.” The Haast’s eagle could reach around 40 pounds (18kg) and have a wingspan of nearly 10 feet (3m).

In addition, the Haast’s eagle had a pelvis so strong it could deliver a killer blow. Dr. Scofield said, “Haast’s eagle wasn’t just the equivalent of a giant predatory bird. It was the equivalent of a lion.” 

Taung Child

Raymond Dart discovered the Taung Child, a fossil of a human ancestor estimated to have died at three and a half years old. It was initially believed the child was killed by an animal such as a leopard.

However, the breakage of the skull was not in line with a cat predator but that of a bird of prey. After much research it’s now believed that it was a raptor, similar to the African crown hawk, that killed the child.  

5 Birds Capable of Snatching a Toddler

Today, the Haast’s eagle is extinct, as is whatever ancient raptor killed the Taung Child. Also, the viral video in 2012 of a golden eagle trying to steal a child was later revealed to be a hoax.

Accounts of birds of prey trying to snatch a child have littered the 19th and 20th centuries. However, they have been difficult to prove as true.

Pets have been snatched, however, including a bald eagle taking a dachshund, only to drop it. Great horned owls have taken a poodle-Pekingese mix and a Shih-poo. So while most bird-of-prey baby stealing stories have not been confirmed, there are birds out there physically capable of the stunt.

It is important to note, however, that all the birds listed below are endangered. It is they who should fear us, not the other way around. 

1. African Crowned Eagle

The African crowned eagle is probably the most alarming on the list. With the nickname “the leopard of the air,” it has been reported to be a toddler snatcher. One took a six year-old-child; another’s nest contained a child’s skull. 

An unspecified eagle in Ethiopia, where the African crowned eagle is known to roam, was reported to have gone rogue, killing a child and attacking at least two others. This isn’t the same as snatching a child but is awful, nonetheless.

The African crowned eagle is found in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Africa and is capable of killing animals seven times bigger than themselves. They have a wingspan between 5-5.9 feet (1.524-1.798m), and the female can reach up to 10.3 pounds (4.7kg).

2. Australian Wedge-Tailed Eagle

The Australian wedge-tailed eagle has been photographed grabbing a child’s head after the kid kept playing with its zipper.  While that isn’t the same as stealing a toddler, the birds can be cannibalistic. Their chicks will devour a weaker sibling if food is limited.

The Australian bird averages an adult weight of 7.7 pounds (3.5kg). The bird’s wingspan averages 7.5 feet (2.3m) but has reached up to 9 feet (2.8m). 

3. Bald Eagle

The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States and important to many Native American cultures. In 2001 a bald eagle was reported to have attacked a young girl on a New Hampshire beach.

Apparently, the bird had been swooping down on balls as people played for days. It is unclear if the bird was really after the child or the football she’d been playing with.

Bald eagles are known to play. They’ve been spotted having fun with plastic bottles and even passing sticks between each other.

The North American bird weighs between 6.6-13.88 pounds (3-6.3kg) and has a wingspan between 5.9-7.54 feet (1.8-2.3m).

4. Golden Eagle

The Golden Eagle rose to infamy thanks to the viral hoax. While there are no confirmed cases of Golden eagles trying to snatch babies, there is suspicion that one is responsible for the reported incident in 1928.

Guy Lyons, a farmer in Main, claimed the bird seized his two-year-old son. The toddler was saved thanks to his five year-old-brother grabbing his ankle. 

The Golden Eagle is between 6.17-14.77pounds (2.8-6.7kg) and is North America’s largest bird-of-prey. Its wingspan between 6 to 7 feet (1.82-2.13m). 

5. New Guinea Harpy-Eagle

The New Guinea harpy eagle goes by man names, including Papuan eagle and Kapul eagle. While there are stories of a New Guinea harpy eagle snatching a child and taking it to a branch, the story is highly suspect and not confirmed. 

The New Guinea harpy eagle weighs between 3.5-5.29 pounds (1.6-2.4kg) and has a wingspan between 5.15-6.56 feet (1.57-2m).

5 Birds That Can Hurt Humans

Birds do kill humans. Not as much as humans kill them, however. It is bird breeds filling up endangered lists, not people.

Even when it is the human the dies, it is often the person’s fault. Take the incident in 2011 where a chicken killed a man. (Yes, really.) Cockfighting is illegal, and the rooster didn’t tie the knife to his own leg; a person did that.

Even in the Great Emu War of 1932, there were no human casualties. However, 3,000 emus died, despite being victorious. (Yes, soldiers were sent off to fight birds, and the birds won.)

NOTE: While birds should fear us and not the other way around, some feathered friends are capable of doing us harm. 

1. Cassowaries

Marvin Hajos of  Florida died in 2019 when he fell between the two cassowary pens on his farm. It was the first record human to be killed by a cassowary since 1926. The event brought worldwide attention to the large bird found naturally in Northern Australia and New Guinea, although they can be found in zoos and, apparently, Florida farms.

The southern cassowary
is the largest of the cassowaries and can reach up to 5.8 feet (1.7m), and the males can weigh as much as 121 pounds (55kg). Their bodies are covered in lush black feathers, and their neck is a vibrate blue, adorned with bright red wattles. However, it’s the crest on their heads that remind many of dinosaurs.

Cassowaries are solitary outside of mating season. The female lays between 3 to 8 eggs which range from light green to dark teal, and can weigh as much as 20.6 ounces (584g). The male is the one that looks after the eggs for a span of around 50 days. He also raises the chicks, which takes another nine months. 

Cassowaries are reported to be shy but will attack humans if provoked. In 1999 a study revealed 150 attacks on humans. It seems much of this is due to people feeding them, and the birds, now associating people with food, become aggressive when their expectation of food isn’t met.

Cassowaries don’t need to be provoked to go after dogs, however, which they loath. Nor are they great fans of cats, either. But dogs are far from without blame in the situation.

Thus, while cassowaries are formidable birds, it does seem that most of their negative encounters with humans originate with humans. 

2. Geese

Willow Webb was attacked by geese in 2019 while using her walker to take a stroll. The event left Webb with a broken pelvis and elbow.

Geese attacks are not rare. Nor are the animals tiny, capable of reaching up to 15 pounds (6.8kg) with a maximum wingspan of 6.56 feet (2m).

Research has also revealed that once a goose has attacked you, you will likely be attacked again.

The problem is so bad that there is official advice put out on how to deal with geese, which includes:

  • Stare down your attacker.
  • Slowly back away.
  • Do not act hostile.
  • If the goose flies towards your face, duck or move away at a 90 degree angle to the direction of the flight still facing the attacking goose. 

Despite geese’s aggressive behavior, there is no record of geese ever killing a human. There are plenty of geese killed by humans, however. 

3. Lammergeier 

The lammergeier, also known as the bearded vulture, rose to fame when it was a quiz question on The Chase. The TV host lost it as the contestant expounded that this was the bird legends claim dropped a tortoise onto Aeschylus’s bald head, killing him. However, this has never been proven.

The lammergeier’s name means lamb-vulture, but the animal isn’t a killer. 90% of its diet is bone marrow which it gets from dropping bones, not tortoises.

It isn’t even a true vulture, as it isn’t bald but has a feathered head. The bird can weigh up to 15.5 pounds (7.5kg), and its wingspan can reach 9.35 feet (2.85m). 

Thus, the lammergeier is far from a massive creature and seems undeserving of its “murder by tortoise” reputation.  

4. Mute Swans

Anthony Hensley, in 2012 was kayaking in a retention pond where mute swans had been brought in to deter geese. The nesting swan took offense and went for him, and he fell out of his kayak into the water. The swan is said to have continued its attack, and Hensley eventually drowned.

Mute swans are usually depicted as graceful birds and have the starring role in the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Ugly Duckling.” In that story, it is the ducks, not the swans, that are mean. People also find it romantic that swans mate for life. 

However, mute swans are incredibly protective and territorial over their nests and young, even attacking other swans. In 2018 “Mr. Nasty” had killed up to 20 in the Pembroke pond. It wasn’t the first time the area had dealt with such a problem, thanks to “Hannibal” back in 2010.

Mute swans are not the largest bird on the planet, but they are a decent size. They can reach weights up to nearly 20 pounds (13.4kg) and have a wingspan of up to 7.8 feet (2.38m), on par with a medium-sized dog. However, it is doubtful mute swans will take over the role as man’s best friend.

5. Ostrich

Johnny Cash, in 1981 was attacked by a male ostrich that lived in his exotic animal park behind the House of Cash. Cash credited his strong belt, paired with a solid belt buckle, for saving his life.

As it was, it broke two of Cash’s ribs and left a rip from ribs to belt. Cash broke an additional three ribs on a rock when the bird knocked him over. 

Ostriches are powerful birds, as Johnny Cash’s incident proved. The birds are designed to have a fighting chance against a lion attack, after all.

In Australia, ostriches and emus are credited for 5 human deaths between 2001-2007. To put that in perspective, the same article also lists horses, ponies, and donkeys for being responsible for 77 human deaths in that same time period. 

Ostriches originate from Africa and reach a height of 9 feet (2.7m) and weigh as much as 320 pounds (145kg). While they are farmed for their meat and feathers, wild ostriches do still live in sub-Saran Africa.

The bird has two toes, one of which is designed similarly to a hoof. They are fast and strong. Again, they are designed to have a fighting chance against a lion. 

However, while ostrich can cause damage, they are far from feared. In fact, in South Africa, it is common for tourists to ride them. The practice of riding ostriches does carry its fair share of criticism, however. Nor can you train an ostrich like you can a horse. 

NOTE: Some of these dangerous birds do not have the capability to fly, like the ostrich and cassowary. If you’re curious to know about them, check out this article I wrote about birds that can’t fly and why they don’t need to.

Don’t Be Afraid But Beware

There are no birds that could eat humans in the present. But birds can definitely cause harm to humans.

However, the chances of a bird killing a person is rare. Even rarer is a bird eating a human. Humans, however, are notorious for eating birds.