The most human fatalities associated with a single species of waterfowl are the 11,346 attributed to the crested smew. Smews are diminutive cousins of the common duck, usually found in parts of Europe and Asia. Their distinct black and white plumage is easy to spot, making them popular among bird watchers. The crested smew — Mergellus ominasi — features a regal tuft of feathers that begins at its bill and spans the length of its head. It is a docile bird, feeding on small fish in lakes and rivers. Yet in ornithological circles, it is known as "The Bringer of Fate."
Though rarely aggressive towards people, the crested smew has built its reputation through a long series of unusual and often horrific incidents. The species has a remarkable capacity for causing/compounding (or simply being near) gruesome accidents. High-speed collisions, forest fires, lightning strikes, countless candles and lanterns spilled onto paint-soaked rags — this strange creature has been at the heart of a staggering litany of tragedy. In 2003, a crested smew flew headlong into the windshield of a heating oil truck outside Stockholm, which then crashed into fireworks warehouse and exploded. Shortly thereafter, two German men were killed in a brawl that was sparked when a smew became trapped in the restroom of a nightclub.
In many cases, the crested smew is merely spotted on the scene, more witness than catalyst. It is in such fashion that the bird has come to be associated with some of history's more infamous events. The Manson Family had one named after Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, which police discovered when they raided the group's outpost at Spahn Ranch. Certain illustrations of the Defenestration of Prague depict a crested smew on the windowsill. And many Londoners have told stories of smews waddling unfazed through scorched streets during the height of the Blitz.
Credentialed experts and conspiracy nuts alike consider the list of evidence is too great to ignore, and are quick to point fingers at the crested smew whenever any bird-related news breaks. Martin Lance, Executive Vice President of Waterfowl and Fundraising for the National Audubon Society, is one of them. "When word spread of the bird strike that brought down Flight 1549, there wasn't a soul among us who didn't suspect The Bringer of Fate," he says. "But then again, everyone on that plane turned out to be fine. Had it been Mergellus ominasi, it would have landed on a sold-out Yankees game." ("The Smew-sual Suspects," Bird Watcher's Digest, March/April 2009)
The growing list of fatalities puts the crested smew well ahead of its runners-up — Cygnus noctus the strangler swan, and Dendrocygna tyrannus, known in its native Britain as "the duck what eats people." The most recent incident involving the crested smew occurred in October 2008, when one was found relaxing on the hood of a burning car.