- An emblem of hunting and culture throughout human history, the peregrine falcon is the fastest bird on the planet, achieving speeds of around 200 to 240 mph in its 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.
- The red-breasted merganser is the fasted duck species in the world, having been clocked at flying 100 mph.
- From East Asia, the white-throated needletail gets its name from the sharp, needle-like feathers at the end of its tail and is actually a species of large swift. Unofficially, it’s been known to reach speeds of 105 mph, putting it on our list for fastest birds in the world.
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 two 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.
The Different Ways to Calculate Bird Speed
When determining the fastest birds, you must consider the following: wing speed, flight speed, and dive speed. Scientists use tracking devices and fundamental aerodynamics to measure velocity in birds.
Wing speed is deduced by how many flaps per second occur. The lighter the bird, the faster the flaps. A bird such as the ruby-throated hummingbird, small and light, beats its wings 50 times per second.
Flight speed is the natural cruising flight of a bird horizontally. The rules of aerodynamics play a large part in a bird’s airspeed as do mass and wing loading. Things to consider are body mass, wingspan, wing shape, muscles, and amount of flaps.
Dive speed refers to the greatest airspeed a bird can achieve while diving. To determine this, the mph is recorded when the bird is diving down versus flying horizontally. The force created when plummeting can sometimes double a bird’s regular flight speed. And the heavier the bird, the higher the speed will accelerate during a dive. The fasted diving bird, the peregrine falcon, was clocked at 240 mph!
#10. Common Swift- 70 mph
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.
What is truly astonishing about the common swift is that it holds the record for the longest uninterrupted flight. This winged creature can fly non-stop for 10 months. Scientists came to this deduction with the help of iPhone technology. Attaching light sensors and accelerometers to common swifts, they were able to track their migratory paths. Of the birds traced, 3 of them made the 10 month sprint without stopping. The others were in the air 99% of the time.
These birds do everything on the fly such as eating, mating, and perhaps even napping while in descent. Loyal creatures, they mate for life and return to their same place to next each year, often roosting in churches and houses.
#9. Red-breasted Merganser- 80 mph
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.
This speedy duck is a diver, searching beneath the water’s surface for fish, frogs, crustaceans, and even insects. Sometimes it even works with other red-breasted mergansers for its food, circling up, taking turns swimming underwater to catch a treat with its saw-shaped bill.
#8. Grey-headed Albatross- 80 mph
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. And the Guinness Book of World Records has the grey-headed albatross recorded as the fastest bird in level flight. That’s cause for bragging rights!
If you’re a fan of folklore, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the superstition surrounding the albatross. The albatross is known to follow fishing boats for long distances, causing sailors to attach meaning to them. Many believed the albatross to be the spirit of a sailor who met a watery grave, and this spirit brought good luck. Others, however, felt the giant bird brought impending doom. (Read Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and decide for yourself!) Contrasting to this, however, the grey-headed albatross is the only bird in its family that doesn’t follow fishing vessels. It is a giant, solitary, and fast bird whose only predator is the threat of starvation. Perhaps it should join the other albatross and stalk a ship!
#7. Eurasian Hobby- 100 mph
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.
With its sleek and fast diving ability, the Eurasian hobby can catch a variety of meals in flight. They prey upon small bats, swallows, and even swifts, making them faster than other birds in the raptor species. House martins even have a “hobby” call to alert each other of the presence of this ruthless hunter.
You will spy this bird in open spaces mostly, such as farmlands and marshes, seeking its next meal during the morning or evening. Eurasian hobbies are known to fly over bodies of water as well if not hunting birds. When nesting, this bird is a freeloader. She will find empty nests made by other birds, such as crows.
#6. White-throated Needletail- 105 mph
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. Due to its spiky look, it was formerly known as the spine-tailed swift and sometimes nicknamed storm-bird. Hailing from East Asia, it spends a great deal of time in the air, feeding on small flying insects. It prefers to live in rocky ridges, forests, and hills, building its nests inside cracked rocks or crags on a hillside. This bird is able to cling to vertical planes without a problem.
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. It has been called the fastest flying bird while not diving.
White-throated needletail has very large, strong wings. It can easily be mistaken for birds of prey for this reason, but they prefer to coast along most of the time, eating insects in flight. Some of its favorites include moths, bees, and flies.
#5. Red-tailed Hawk- 120 mph
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. Snakes and rodents, beware! The 1.33 inch long talons of the red-tailed hawk are quite formidable.
It is not uncommon to see a red-tailed hawk stalking a highway or even circling above your neighborhood, searching for its next meal. Their wingspan is over 4 feet, making them experts at soaring. Along with its keen eyes, speediness, and large size, the red-tail hawk is known for its raspy screech. In fact, its birdcall is so popular that it is often used in TV shows and movies.
#4. Gyrfalcon- 68 mph of Consistent Level Flight
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. While 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.
This solitary bird is known to hunt alone until the approach of breeding season. Then, it makes room in its world for that special someone, and it remains loyal to death do they part. Gyrfalcons are monogamous birds, returning to their mate each year until one of them dies. The gyrfalcons usually makes its nest on cliffs and returns to the same place every year.
#3. Golden Eagle- 200 mph
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.
This national symbol of Mexico, the golden eagle, is the largest bird of prey in North America, with its massive wingspan and 3 foot long body. One reason it is so rare to spot is it prefers rugged terrain like mountains and canyons, avoiding well-populated areas or long stretches of dense forests. If you happen to see one, be careful not to take a feather, as it is illegal and could result in massive fines from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Similar to the other raptors, the golden eagle will often mate for life. Their courtship routine is quite the display of 2 birds diving quickly and circling one another. Their nests, which both eagles build, are usually used for many years and grow in size with each season. Located often on the ledge of a cliff or in a tree, the aged golden eagle nest is quite the spectacle-a massive conglomeration of moss, weeds, sticks, and grasses. It is often added to each year, increasing in size.
#2. Saker Falcon- 200 mph
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 and Hungary.
With a wingspan that can be just over 4 feet, the saker falcon is known for its horizontal pursuit of prey. Its preferred meal consists of pigeons and squirrels. For this reason, you can find them hunting in open spaces such as the edge of the desert of grasslands near trees and cliffs.
When nesting, the saker falcon finds an old nest made of sticks by another bird and lays its eggs there. Typically, she will lay 3-6 eggs. Sadly, this species is on the endangered list.
#1. Peregrine Falcon- 240 mph
The peregrine falcon takes the crown as the fastest flying 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. It is also fast enough to seize upon the occasional rabbit. Even its nostrils are adapted to tolerate the air when it dives, helping to protect its lungs from damage.
While hunting, the peregrine falcon flies with its head at an angular position, which aids in its curved flight towards its prey. This positioning helps reduce drag, getting it to its desired location at top speed. What a smart bird! If you’re interested in this fascinating bird, read more about it here.
Summary of the 10 Fastest Birds in the World
|1||Peregrine Falcon-240 mph|
|2||Saker Falcon- 200 mph|
|3||Golden Eagle- 200 mph|
|4||Gyrfalcon- 68 mph of Consistent Level Flight|
|5||Red-tailed Hawk- 120 mph|
|6||White-throated Needletail- 105 mph|
|7||Eurasian Hobby- 100 mph|
|8||Grey-headed Albatross- 80 mph|
|9||Red-breasted Merganser- 80 mph|
|10||Common Swift- 70 mph|
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