Swan song: John Ratliff, ‘Lone Star Swan,’ dies at 81

The Mission’s bird man died on Feb. 7, 2022
Lone Star Swan strode past Panchita’s, a baby pigeon huddled to his breast. He reached his destination, then lifted the bird to his face; its feathers were black, like the headband corralling Swan’s mop of white hair.

“These are advanced human beings,” Swan said of the hundreds of pigeons fidgeting around him. “These are ancient wizards that decide to reincarnate in something without hands, so man couldn’t put him to work.”

John Ratliff, also known as “Lone Star Swan,” “Swan,” “Saint Swan” and “The Birdman,” was an award-winning journalist and poet when, in 1972, he began experiencing psychotic episodes. Eventually schizophrenic and unhoused, he made the Mission’s 16th Street his home, and its pigeons his flock. On Monday, Feb. 7, he died at 3:15 p.m. from sepsis and aspiration pneumonia at Sutter Health Alta Bates Medical Center. He was 81.

Strangers and Mission locals helped him. Sometimes, Swan rebuffed attempts to get off the streets because he couldn’t live without the birds; he kept feeding them outside his window, pissing off neighbors and violating building rules, a 2019 Mission Local article recounted.

“I’m doing what I feel I must do,” Swan said in the 2002 documentary he starred in. “I guess I’m happy. I’m doing what I’m damn well gonna do.”