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What are the world’s fastest birds?

The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird – and in fact the fastest animal on Earth – when in its hunting dive.

So far, no bird known can match the flying speed of a peregrine falcon in its hunting dive. The peregrine falcon is the fastest bird – and in fact the fastest animal on Earth – when in a dive. As it executes this dive, the peregrine falcon soars to a great height, then dives steeply at speeds of over 300 kilometers (200 miles) per hour.

The video below gives you an idea of how fast this is, as seen from the falcon’s point of view.

The peregrine falcon’s diving speed is amazing. But this bird doesn’t make the top 10 when traveling in level flight. Studies have clocked an Indian bird, the spine-tailed swift, at over 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour. To see more of the world’s fastest birds while traveling at level flight, see this link.

In 2011, scientists discovered the fastest migratory known so far: the great snipe. After following the birds’ migration south from Sweden to central Africa using tiny tracking devices, Swedish scientists found that the birds fly non-stop over a distance of around 6,760 kilometeres (4,200 miles) at a phenomenal 97 kilometers (60 miles) per hour.

Great snipe is the fastest migratory bird ever discovered

What about other birds? Scientists who’ve tracked birds with Doppler radar say most birds cruise along at somewhere around 40 kilometers (25 miles) miles an hour. But ducks and other waterfowl often fly twice that fast. So do racing pigeons.

A headwind or tailwind will change a bird’s speed. Also, birds fly faster when they’re chasing prey or escaping a predator. Some birds are pretty fast on their feet, too. The speediest is the ostrich. If you’re in a car, you might imagine one of these big birds running alongside you. Its average running speed is about 30 miles an hour – but it can sprint even faster.

By the way, the Guinness Book of World Records – an obvious source for the answer to questions like ‘what’s the world’s fastest bird?’ – actually came into existence because of an argument about the fastest game bird in Europe. In 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, the managing director of Guinness Breweries, was in southeastern Ireland with a group of friends, enjoying a day’s shooting. Failing to shoot a golden plover, Sir Hugh maintained that this must be the world’s fastest flying game bird. His companions disagreed. Sir Hugh used his own fortune to research the question, and that’s how the Guiness Book of World records got started.

Our thanks to:

Jeff Cilek
Vice President
Peregrine Fund
Boise, Idaho

Gary D. Schnell
Curator of Birds & Professor of Zoology
Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, University of Oklahoma
Norman, Oklahoma