‘What is the fastest bird in the world?’ is a common question. In fact, there’s a story that it was this very question that launched the Guinness Book of Records.
The answer to the question on the fastest bird actually depends on where the bird is, and what it’s doing when its speed is measured. The ostrich is the fastest animal on two legs, while there are some birds that can swim and dive at quite a rate. And when it comes to measuring the speed of a bird in the air, this too can be divided into birds flying horizontally and birds diving – or ‘stooping’.
How is bird speed measured?
The speed of a bird is usually measured using radar devices similar to radar traps used in road traffic, along with small planes or drones in some cases. Even still it’s hard to get exact results as there are so few bird species that can be trained to fly in a straight line.
It was only in 2009 that a team of researchers from Sweden’s Lund University used high-speed cameras to scientifically measure the flight speed of the Common Swift, which at the time was thought to be the fastest bird in the world. As this article shows, that assumption is incorrect.
On that note, let’s find out the fastest birds in the world in the air (both diving and flying horizontally), on land, and in the sea:
The 3 fastest birds – stooping speed
What is stooping?
Many birds of prey use a high-speed attack dive known as ‘stooping’, where they fly high above their prey before closing their wings and falling into a downwards dive. Their aerodynamic shape combined with the force of gravity leads to stooping birds reaching enormous speeds, often stunning or killing their prey outright on impact.
Although these stooping birds are the fastest animals in the sky, is diving really flying? The gravity-assisted nature of this hunting technique is more of a controlled fall than flying, hence them being broken out into a separate section.
390 kilometers per hour
The Peregrine falcon is, without doubt, the fastest of all birds. It’s been measured moving at speeds of up to 390 kilometers per hour when stooping.
320 kilometers per hour
The saker falcon is renowned as an exceptional hunter, which combined with its incredible diving speed of 320 kilometers per hour allows it to hunt small and medium-sized mammals and birds, sometimes larger than itself.
241 kilometers per hour
Although golden eagles are the third-fastest diving bird, it’s actually unusual for these giant birds to reach their top speed by stooping at 240 kilometers per hour – they usually hunt by flying low over land and striking prey with their talons.
The 4 fastest birds – level flying speed
Researchers who used Doppler radar to track birds say that most bird species cruise at around 40 kilometers per hour, though this rough average speed changes according to headwinds and tailwinds and whether a bird is escaping a predator or chasing prey.
Of course. the average speed changes by species. Ducks and other waterfowl tend to fly almost double this 40 km per hour number, driven in large part because of their body shape. Ducks have the smallest wing size relative to body size – giving them a high wing loading, and requiring they need to fly faster to stay in the air.
Even still, researchers find it hard to get verifiable speed measurements for birds in flight, as so few species can be trained to fly in a straight line. With this in mind, below are four of the fastest bird species when it comes to level flight:
169 kilometers per hour
The beautifully coloured white-throated needletail used to be known as the spine-tailed swift. It’s believed – though not yet scientifically proven – that this species is the fastest flying bird, reaching speeds of 169 kilometers per hour.
127 kilometers per hour
Grey-headed albatrosses are solitary seabirds that spend most of their lives at sea in the Southern Ocean. They use their enormous wingspan of up to 2.2 meters, flying speed of up to 127 kilometers per hour, and immense stamina to cover distances of up to 13,000 kilometers in search of food.
145 kilometers per hour
As well as being one of the fastest birds around the gyrfalcon is the largest falcon in the world, hunting predominantly ptarmigan which it supplements with other bird species. Their range is restricted to the High Arctic and can be found nesting on inaccessible cliffs in northern Alaska and Canada.
112 kilometers per hour
The common swift is a medium-sized bird that hits top flying speed during their display flight only, rather than their every day flying. Along with being particularly fast, common swifts have the incredible capability of being able to stay in the air for up to 10 months without landing or stopping.
The 3 fastest birds on land
70 kilometers per hour
What is the biggest bird in the world? No contest, the common ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the biggest bird in the world.
It’s both the tallest and heaviest, with an average height of over 2 meters (sometimes as tall as 2.8 meters) and a weight of up to 160 kg. At this size, the ostrich is, of course, a flightless bird, but can outrun plenty of animals with its top speed of 69 km per hour, which makes it the fastest animal on two legs.
Their long, powerful legs double up as defensive weapons which pack a powerful kick to would-be predators. Fun ostrich fact – they are able to survive without water for days, generating water internally and extracting water from vegetation.
able to cover 5 meters in a single stride!
56 kilometers per hour
Greater rheas (Rhea americana) are the largest birds in the Americas, native to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. As with so many birds on this list, the greater rhea is flightless and fast, able to reach 35 kilometers per hour using their long, powerful legs.
Along with their high speeds, they protect themselves from predators by gathering in flocks of up to 100 birds during the non-breeding season.
50 kilometers per hour
Australia’s emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) are like a shaggier, slightly smaller ostrich, and like ostriches are not built for flight. The females of the species are larger than the males and can reach 1.9 meters tall – which makes them the third-largest bird in the world. Their speed is impressive too, able to reach 48 kilometers per hour, using their three-toed feet and tiny wings to keep them stable when running.
The fastest swimming bird
Up to 36 kilometers per hour
These charismatic waddlers are the world’s third-largest penguin species, and the fastest underwater by some way. Once in the water their streamlined bodies and strong, paddle-shaped flippers propel them up to 36 kilometers per hour
And that’s your lot for our list of the world’s fastest birds. What did you think – any picks surprise you? Let us know in the comments section below.