For thousands of years, people all over the world have been fascinated with the flight and motion of birds. It was often seen as a symbol of liberation, escape, or just plain beauty.
One ancient Greek writer said that he wished to become a “high-flying eagle and soar beyond the barren waters over the swell of the grey sea.” But in the fierce competition for survival, the flight of the bird serves a far more basic purpose. It is a vital means of hunting, travel, and even courtship.
There are a few different ways to measure flight speed: level flight, meaning the speed it takes to fly in a straight line, and diving flight, meaning the speed at which the bird plunges down to kill its prey. The latter type of flight is generally much faster, but for obvious reasons, it can only be sustained for a few seconds at a time. Complicating matters is that many species are classified according to the highest recorded individual flight speed rather than the average flight speed. This article will take all factors into account when listing the fastest birds in the world.
#10 Fastest Birds in the World: Common Swift
The common swift is a medium-sized bird with curved wings and a forked tail. It spends the spring and summer in its natural breeding territories of Europe and Asia and travels to the southern part of Africa for the winter.
Curiously, the common swift seems to have two different modes of level flight. When it’s in normal flight, it prefers to maintain a consistent speed of 22 to 26 mph. But in the breeding season, the swift seems to have a whole new gear. As it tries to court a mate, the bird can reach a maximum level flight speed of around 70 mph by altering its wing profile and aerodynamic performance, even while ascending through the air. These social displays are called screaming parties because of the harsh sounds it makes while in flight.
#9 Fastest Birds in the World: Red-breasted Merganser
The red-breasted merganser is a type of sawbill duck with a long, serrated bill and crest feathers around the head. Like many other waterfowl, it prefers to breed in northern climates and then travel toward warmer coastal climates in the winter. One study recorded the maximum flight speed of the red-breasted merganser at around 80 mph. When the wind was accounted for, the bird actually clocked in at around 100 mph. This makes it the fastest duck species in the entire world. However, it can only maintain such speeds for very short periods of time.
#8 Fastest Birds in the World: Grey-headed Albatross
The grey-headed albatross is unique on this list. This bird spends almost its entire life at sea, sometimes roaming more than 8,000 miles in search of food. The only time it returns to land is for the breeding season. With a wingspan of more than 7 feet, albatrosses don’t so much fly as float along the wind to minimize the flapping motion and conserve energy. This allows it to achieve a maximum flight speed of nearly 80 mph, according to the BBC.
#7 Fastest Birds in the World: Eurasian Hobby
The Eurasian Hobby is a small, slender species of falcon that breeds in Europe and Asia and then migrates as far south as the tip of Africa for the winter. This bird of prey has a very fast diving motion. As it swoops down to capture its prey, it can achieve diving speeds of nearly 100 mph. But perhaps the most remarkable fact about this bird is its exquisite mid-air control. Its maneuverability is so refined that a male can pass food to the female in mid-flight as part of its courtship display.
#6 Fastest Birds in the World: White-throated Needletail
The white-throated needletail, which gets its name from the sharp needle-like feathers at the end of the tail, is actually a species of large swift. Hailing from East Asia, it spends a great deal of time in the air, feeding on small flying insects. Based on one study, this species can supposedly reach speeds of around 105 mph. However, the actual methods used to measure the bird’s speed have never been published, according to the BBC, so this figure has yet to be fully verified.
#5 Fastest Birds in the World: Red-tailed Hawk
The red-tailed hawk, which can be found all over the North American continent, from Alaska to Panama, is not the fastest flyer on this list. It can only achieve conventional flying speeds of about 20 to 40 mph. But when it spots prey, this bird will suddenly spring into action and dive down at speeds of more than 120 mph. The red-tailed hawk is an opportunistic hunter that will eat almost anything, but its favorite meal appears to be rodents and other small mammals. It is aided in this effort by the sharp eyesight (about eight times as powerful as a human’s vision), which can spot a mouse from some 100 feet away.
#4 Fastest Birds in the World: Gyrfalcon
The white-feathered gyrfalcon is a fascinating species in many different ways. It is believed to be the largest falcon species in the world. It is one of the few birds that can breed along the frigid Arctic coasts. And it’s the official mascot of the US Air Force Academy. But the gyrfalcon is also among the fastest birds measured in terms of its ability to maintain a consistent level flight speed. Whereas several other birds can exceed their speed over short bursts, the gyrfalcon can average about 50 to 68 mph over remarkably long distances without slowing or stopping, which few other species can do.
#3 Fastest Birds in the World: Golden Eagle
With a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet, the golden eagle is a symbol of both size and power. While its average flight speed of around 28 to 32 mph may not seem that impressive, the golden eagle can suddenly leap upon its prey with a dizzying dive speed approaching 150 to 200 mph. Its raw size comes at the cost of some agility and maneuverability though. It cannot quite catch a particularly fast-moving bird in mid-flight. But it is capable of killing slower prey as large as a sheep or goat.
#2 Fastest Birds in the World: Saker Falcon
The endangered saker falcon patrols the open grasslands of Eurasia and Africa to feed on smaller rodents and birds. This fearsome predator swoops down on prey with a dive speed of up to 200 mph and paralyzes it with a quick strike. When in normal flight, it can also achieve a maximum speed of around 93 mph. The saker falcon is such an important element of some cultures that it was named the national bird of Mongolia.
#1 Fastest Birds in the World: Peregrine Falcon
The peregrine falcon takes the crown as the fastest species of bird in the world. An emblem of hunting and culture throughout human history, this bird can achieve speeds of around 200 to 240 mph in its deadly high-speed dive (and up to 68 mph while in level flight). To reach such extreme speeds, the falcon has the ability to fold its aerodynamic wings back against its body to reduce drag. According to one study, it will continue to make small adjustments to wing position and speed right up until the moment of contact in order to actually hits its target. Combined with its ability to quickly and accurately process visual stimuli, the peregrine falcon is able to prey upon fast-moving birds such as pigeons, songbirds, and doves right in mid-air. If you’re interested in this fascinating bird, then can read more about it here.