Flight has always fascinated us. The natural speed and agility of your average songbird is remarkable enough, but some birds take the power of flight to another level.
Birds are the undisputed fastest animals on the planet, and they use their speed variously for catching their prey, traveling long distances, and evading their predators. So let's get into it, what is the fastest bird in the world?
The fastest bird in the world is the migratory peregrine falcon. These raptors feed on other birds like pigeons and shorebirds that they capture in flight at amazing speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. They achieve this speed by diving or stooping from above, using a combination of powerful flight muscles, perfectly streamlined form, and good old gravity.
It’s not easy to measure the maximum speeds of birds, so there is so much still to learn about their flying ability. Apart from the challenges of setting up a study with the right instruments, you still need willing participants and ideal conditions.
Nevertheless, the records we have (whether anecdotal or scientifically confirmed) are hugely interesting and valuable insights into the avian world.
This article is all about speed. Read along as we learn more about some of the fastest bird species in the world.
The fastest bird in the world, the Peregrine Falcon
The Peregrine Falcon is the fastest bird in the world when it comes to the speed it can reach whilst diving. They can reach a staggering 200 mph (389 km/h), making them by far the fastest bird by airspeed velocity in the world. This doesn't just mean that peregrine falcons are the fastest bird in the world; they are actually the fastest animal in the world.
Peregrine Falcons utilise this impressive speed to catch their prey and perform precise manoeuvres. They may attack their prey anywhere from a few hundred metres to several kilometres away and will drop out the sky, usually using this force to deliver a significant blow to their prey. They will sometimes catch their prey with their large, powerful talons too.
To stop, they forcefully flap their wings and then fold them to decrease the drag.
Peregrine Falcons are the fastest birds in the world (and fastest animal)
Level flight is when birds fly at a consistent height above the ground using only the power of their muscles and the feathers on their streamlined bodies. The fastest level flying birds are the species that catch their prey in flight or need to travel long distances and evade other fast-flying birds.
The fastest level flight is probably made by a swift or closely related species in the Apodidae family. These streamlined (and aptly named) relatives of the hummingbirds are true masters of the skies. The fastest verified species is the common swift (Apus apus), although the white-throated needletail (Hirundapus caudacutus) is believed to reach even faster speeds of 80-105 miles per hour in level flight.
Swifts are not the only birds capable of impressive level flight speeds. The following other birds are also very fast:
The Common Swift can reach speeds of over 69 mph (over 110 km/h)
Birds are not only capable of great speed in flight. Birds run bipedally, just like we do, but some species are capable of running much faster than we are. The fastest running birds are the ratites, which are large flightless birds from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and South America.
The ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the undisputed fastest running bird in the world. These flightless giants can reach incredible speeds of over 43 miles per hour. Ostriches are built for life in the semi-deserts and savannahs of Africa where it can be a long run between waterholes and feeding grounds. The presence of hungry big cats and other predators makes speed an important survival strategy too.
Ostriches have forfeited the power of flight to live this terrestrial lifestyle, but one American bird combines remarkable running speed and the power of flight. The roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) has been measured at a surprising speed of 26 miles per hour.
This speed is both useful for catching fast prey like small lizards, and leaving wily coyotes and other predators in their dust!
An Ostrich running
Hawks are not particularly fast birds when not hunting. Buteo hawks like the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) prefer to soar, and some species, like the rough-legged hawk (B. lagopus), can even hover stationary in one place.
Falcons are the fastest birds of prey. All falcons are powerful in flight, but the peregrine falcon is famed for being the fastest flying bird in the world. This species has been recorded stooping (diving) at jaw-dropping speeds of up to 200 miles per hour!
Red-tailed Hawks prefer to soar high in the sky
Owls are not usually known for their speed. These nocturnal hunters rely more on stealth and finely tuned senses to make the kill. Nevertheless, owls do swoop down on their prey with surprising speed.
The great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) is said to be the fastest owl, capable of flying at up to 40 miles per hour or so.
Most owl species have not been measured for speed, however, so it is difficult to pinpoint just which is the fastest. The northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula) is certainly worth mentioning in any discussion about fast owls.
This largely diurnal species from Canada and Alaska uses its speed and agile flight to hunt small mammals and even other birds.
Great Horned Owls are one of the fastest owl species
We usually see eagles soaring through the skies at cruising speed. These large raptors know how to use rising air to their advantage, allowing them to stay in the sky without even flapping their wings. This flying technique uses very little energy but is not of much use when it comes to catching their prey.
Eagles can turn up their speed by diving (stooping) down to catch their prey. By folding in their wings, eagles use gravity and their streamlined bodies to catch their unsuspecting prey.
Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) are the fastest eagle species, and are a great example of the speeds that hunting eagles can achieve. According to the US Forest Service, these magnificent birds are able to reach speeds of over 150 miles per hour while hunting.
This is remarkable for such a large bird!
The fastest eagle in the world, the Golden Eagle
All of the fast-flying (and running) birds in this article are remarkable for their athletic prowess, but they certainly aren’t the only fast birds out there! In fact, you might be surprised to learn that some of the fastest birds include shorebirds, ducks, geese, and pigeons.
Let’s take a look at a few notable examples of these fast-flying birds:
These fast-flying shorebirds are known to cruise at speeds exceeding 50 miles per hour. They have been recorded unofficially at an incredible 108 miles per hour, however. Even with their speed, dunlins regularly fall prey to speedy predators like peregrine falcons and merlins.
The red-breasted merganser is probably the fastest duck species and has been recorded at speeds of up to 81 miles per hour. Some reports even raise this figure as high as 100 miles per hour, although this requires verification.
The rock pigeon was domesticated thousands of years ago and has become a familiar sight in towns and cities in America and across the world. These birds are commonly trained as homing (racing) birds that participate in long-distance competitive flights. Some of the best-trained birds have incredible speed and stamina and are said to fly at speeds of over 90 miles per hour.
Birds are not only capable of high-speed flight. Some species can also fly remarkably slowly. Hummingbirds, and some hawks like the white-tailed kite (Elanus leucurus), can even stay stationary in flight, neither moving forward nor downward. Staying still in one place might be a very slow way of moving, but it requires these birds to make rapid movements of their wings.
The honor of the slowest moving bird (that does not hover) goes to the American woodcock (Scolopax minor) which can stay airborne at just 5 miles per hour.
The slowest bird in the world, the American Woodcock
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