The Peregrine Falcon can fly at speeds of up to 242 mph (389.46 kmh) because of their specially adapted wings, respiratory, and circulatory system. Not only are they the fastest birds in the world, but their incredible speed makes them the fastest animals in the world.
Not all birds can have the speed of the Peregrine Falcon, but there are many birds that still stand out. Most of the birds on this list are incredible flyers, but there are many birds that are experts on land and in water too.
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How Do Their Bodies Allow For Fast Flight?
In order for a bird to be able to fly, their bodies must be lightweight. They must also have a good set of wings.
There are four elements that affect a bird’s ability to fly: weight, lift, drag, and thrust. A bird’s entire body allows them to fly, not just their wings. Their bodies must be streamlined to soar through the air, and their bones must be light, but rigid.
Being lightweight is of the utmost importance. Their feathers are smooth and nearly weightless, allowing air to easily pass by and through them. The bones of birds are hollow which allows for them to be nearly weightless as well. Birds even have beaks, rather than teeth, because beaks don’t weigh as much as jaws full of teeth.
Being weightless isn’t the only requirement for being able to fly, though. The wings are incredibly important, of course, because they allow the birds to lift into the air. The wings would be useless, though, if it weren’t for the bird’s incredibly strong muscles.
Powerful muscles attached to strong bones create a platform for flight. Birds have a large sternum, or breastbone, where many muscles attach. This large bone also helps them thrust more forcefully through the air. Likewise, although light, the skeleton is rigid and allows for attachment of the wing muscles.
Of course, not all wings are the same. Birds have different shaped wings depending on what they do during their day to day lives. A bird that flies incredibly fast is going to have very different wings than a bird that spends most of its time in the water or on land.
There are four basic kinds of wings: elliptical wings, high speed wings, soaring wings, and high-lift wings.
Elliptical wings are broad and elliptically shaped which allows for better maneuvering. This is usually found on birds that catch insects mid-air. They also have wing slots at the tips for air lift.
Soaring wings are long, narrow, and slender. This allows birds to spend a lot of time in the air without expending a lot of energy. Many sea birds, like the albatross, have these types of wings.
High-lift wings are broad with wing slots, but are longer than the elliptical wings. These are good for birds that need to fly high up in the air, like hawks.
High speed wings — which are most important for our article — help a bird to fly incredibly fast. They are slender, but more broad than soaring wings. They do not have any wing slots at the tip, because they slow birds down. Instead, the wing ends with a slender tip for less drag. The wings also sweep backwards which helps with less drag as well.
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Fastest Birds In The Sky
1. Peregrine Falcons (Falco Peregrinus)
Speed: 40-60 mph (64-96 khm) (normally), 242 mph (389.46 kmh) (MAX)
Range: Worldwide — except for cool and dry arctic regions and rainforests
Lifespan: About 13 years — although 60% die before 1 year of age
Diet: Birds like doves, pigeons, shorebirds, waterfowl, and songbirds make up the majority of their diet. They may also eat small reptiles and mammals.
Predators: other large birds of prey like Great Horned Owls, Gyrfalcons, and Golden Eagles.
Peregrine Falcons are not only the fastest bird in the world, but they are the fastest animal on the planet. It generally flies around 40-60 mph (64-96 kmh) when it is going about its normal life. However, when the bird is hunting, it will dive to catch its prey, reaching up to 242 mph (389.46 kmh).
You’re probably wondering what makes these birds different from the others. The keel is the large breastbone that birds use to cut through the air. The keel makes flying more efficient for any bird. But, in the Peregrine Falcon, the keel is very large, which allows for more muscle attachment. More muscle attachment allows for more flapping power.
They also have wings that are curved and pointed at the tips. This allows the body to be more streamlined to help with speed. The bird will sweep its wings back against its body to make it even more streamlined. It also has feathers that are thin, but stiff, reducing drag as it flies.
Not only is the body shape important, but the Peregrine Falcon’s respiratory and circulatory systems are important as well. Even if they had body shapes that could sustain it, most birds could not reach these speeds because their lungs could not handle it.
Peregrine Falcons have more advanced and more complex respiratory systems than other birds. This allows them to fly at speeds at which other birds would not be able to breathe.
Their respiratory system has a “one-way” flow into the lungs. They also have air sacs, so that even when the bird is exhaling, the lungs are still expanded.
The heart of these birds is also incredibly powerful, beating at 600-900 beats per minute. This extreme heart rate helps oxygen to flow quickly throughout the body. More oxygen means that the falcon can maintain these speeds for a longer time without tiring. It also allows the falcon to flap its wings up to 4 times a second.
2. Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
Speed: 200 mph (321 kmh)
Range: North America, Eurasia, northern Africa
Lifespan: Up to 38 years
Diet: Mostly small mammals like rabbits, squirrels, and prairie dogs. They may also eat some birds, reptiles, and fish. They have been known to take down larger prey like seals, coyotes, and badgers.
Pairs of Golden Eagles will often hunt together — one chases the prey until it becomes exhausted, and the other goes in for the kill.
Predators: Wolverines and Grizzly Bears
Golden Eagles are one of the largest birds in North America, and they have a wingspan of about 6.5-9.8 feet (2-3 meters). Their feathers are a black to brown coloration, but its head and neck are golden. They also have large eyes that take up most of their head, but they have very good eyesight to see prey from a distance.
Like the Peregrine Falcon, the Golden Eagle will reach its max speeds when it is diving for prey. Their flight muscles are well-developed so that they’re able to soar in the sky for a long time before they spot their prey. They can fly hundreds of kilometers without resting looking for food.
3. Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)
Speed: 50-68 mph (80.4-109.44 kmh) (normally), 130 mph (209 kmh) (MAX)
Range: Arctic regions, no further south than eastern Canada
Lifespan: About 13 years
Diet: ptarmigan, arctic ground squirrel, and arctic hare
Predators: Golden Eagles
Gyrfalcons are the largest falcons in the world with a wingspan of about 48.4 inches (123 centimeters). Although they can reach speeds of up to 130 mph (209 kmh) diving, they will frequently soar for long distances at about 60 mph (96.5 kmh).
Like the Peregrine Falcon, they will dive from tall heights to catch its prey. They are very skilled hunters because they’re able to maneuver their wings mid-flight, even at incredible speeds. It also uses this maneuverability to speed up or slow down while diving so that it does not miss its prey.
They generally hunt their prey in the air. They search for their prey at incredible heights and will swoop down to snatch their prey. You may also notice them hunting low to the ground, chasing their prey from behind.
4. Frigate Bird (Fregata minor)
Speed: 95 mph (152.8 kmh)
Range: Global tropic waters — will nest on offshore islands off the tropical Pacific, western Atlantic, and south Indian oceans.
Lifespan: About 25-30 years
Diet: Flying fish and squid
Predators: Adults are only preyed on by humans. Eggs and nestlings may be predated by other Frigate Birds, owls, rats, and domestic cats.
The Frigate Bird is a large bird that lives in tropical regions by the coast. Their flight muscles are so powerful that they can fly for about a week without stopping. It can fly incredibly well — up to 95 mph — but it is extremely awkward on land and cannot walk. Because of this, they will spend most of their lives in the air, and will even sleep while flying.
To catch their prey, they will glide toward it and swoop down, catching them mid flight or from the water. One interesting foraging tactic is to harass other birds. If they don’t feel like hunting, or can’t find prey, they will harass other birds that have caught prey. The birds, like boobies, tropicbirds, and petrels, will eventually become so irritated that they will spit up their fish, and the Frigate Bird will take it.
5. Red-Breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)
Speed: 81 mph (130.3 kmh)
Range: Alaska and northern Canada over the winter where it breeds near lakes, wetlands, and marshes. Will return to the mainland after breeding.
Lifespan: Up to 9 years
Diet: Small fish and crustaceans
Predators: Common ravens, great black-backed gulls, herring gulls, parasitic jaegers, and mink may prey on the eggs and nestlings. Adults are threatened by Great Horned Owls, Gyrfalcons, Red Foxes, and Snowy Owls.
Red Breasted Mergansers are diving ducks with a bright red, sharp beak. You will also recognize it because of the frazzled tuft of feathers on its head.
Although these birds can fly very fast when they reach the sky, they have a little trouble getting there. In order to get into the air, they need to have a running start. However, they don’t have much luck with running because their legs are positioned awkwardly to the rear. However, having their legs in this position helps when they’re diving for food in the water.
They are the fastest ducks in the world, but they cannot retain these high speeds for long periods of time.
6. Gray Headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma)
Speed: 78.9 mph (183.4 kmh)
Range: Southern Ocean and north Pacific
Lifespan: Up to 20 years
Diet: Squid, fish, crustaceans, cephalopods, lamprey, and carrion
Predators: The adult’s only predator is humans. Eggs may be preyed on by domestic cats and rats, and juveniles may be predated by tiger sharks.
The Gray Headed Albatross is an incredible flier that can travel very long distances. They almost never stop on land because their wings are so powerful that they can use the windy ocean conditions to keep going. They have a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet/2.2 meters.
Not only can they travel far, but they can maintain their incredible speeds for a long time. To prove this, researchers recorded a Gray Headed Albatross that maintained its fastest speeds for a total of 8 hours. They are able to do this because they don’t really fly, but rather float along the harsh ocean winds. This greatly conserves energy.
This doesn’t come as much of a surprise when you consider that these birds spend the majority of their life at sea. Researchers estimate that these birds may fly over 8,000 miles (12,874.7 kilometers) in their lifetime searching for food. The only time they land is during the breeding season.
7. Canvasback (Aythya valisineria)
Speed: 73 mph (117.5 kmh)
Range: Central North America
Lifespan: Up to 22 years
Diet: Aquatic vegetation, small snails and clams, insect larvae
Predators: Eggs and nestlings are predated by raccoons, skunks, red foxes, mink, crows, magpies, ravens, and gulls. Adults are preyed on by raptors, mink, coyotes, black-backed gulls, bald eagles, great horned owls, snapping turtles, and northern pike.
The Canvasback is another kind of duck that can fly incredibly fast. Similar to geese, they will fly as flocks in a V-shaped formation. They utilize their max speed every winter during their migration.
It is a smaller bird with a wingspan of only 34 inches (91.4 centimeters).
8. Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
Speed: 53 beats per second (normally), 200 beats per second (MAX)
Range: North and Central America
Lifespan: Up to 9 years
Diet: Floral nectar and small insects
Predators: Adults are preyed on by raptors and domestic cats, while nestlings are predated by blue jays.
The Ruby-Throated Hummingbird can not fly fast where distance is concerned. However, it tops the charts as being the bird that can beat its wings the fastest. These birds can beat their wings up to 200 beats per second, significantly outdoing many other hummingbirds who clock in at about 90 beats per second.
These hummingbirds do not always beat their wings so quickly, though. They most often reserve these speeds for courtship. In their day-to-day life, they are more likely to fly at speeds around 53 beats per second.
Being able to beat their wings so quickly allows the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird to maneuver acrobatically. They are able to make turns very quickly and easily, they can hover in place, and they can even fly backwards. Hummingbirds are the only kinds of birds in the world that can fly backwards.
9. Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Speed: 20-40 mph (32.1-64.3 kmh) (normally), 120 mph (193.1 kmh) (MAX)
Range: United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America
Lifespan: Up to 22 years
Diet: Small rodents, eastern cottontail, reptiles, and other birds
Predators: Nestlings are preyed on by great horned owls and eggs are preyed on by corvids
Generally, Red-Tailed Hawks are not that fast compared to the other species on this list. Their average flight speed is about 20-40 mph (32.1-64.3 kmh), but they can reach speeds of about 120 mph (193.1 kmh) when they spot prey. Like many other falcons and hawks, they achieve these speeds by tucking their wings and diving.
They have incredible eyesight and can see small prey from up to 100 feet (30.4 meters) away.
10. Eurasian Hobby (Falco subbuteo)
Speed: 100 mph (160.9 kmh)
Range: Europe, Asia, northern Indian subcontinent
Lifespan: Up to 10 years
Diet: Alates and other insects, small birds
Predators: No known predators
The Eurasian Hobby is part of the Falcon family, so it has a similar body shape and hunting technique to other falcons.
These birds are very popular for the way they fly. They will maneuver through the air, completely acrobatics, sweeping motions, and dives. When they want to sustain its speed, though, they will glide with a steady beating of its wings.
They are so skilled with their flight, in fact, that they can pass food to each other while flying. The males will pass the food to the females mid-flight as a part of the courtship ritual.
When they’re hunting, they utilize shorter gliding. They will beat their wings faster so that they can accelerate, but they will intermittently fly with short glides to save their energy. Much like the Peregrine Falcon, when the Eurasian Hobby is ready to go after its prey, it will tuck its wings against its body and go into a dive.
11. White-Throated Needletail (Hirundapus caudacutus)
Speed: 105 mph (169 kmh)
Range: Eastern and northern Australia
Lifespan: About 8-10 years
Diet: Flying insects like termites, ants, flies, and beetles
The White-Throated Needletail, which is also sometimes called the Stormbird, is one of the largest birds in the swift family. It is also the fastest flapping bird because falcons and eagles do not flap their wings continuously.
They do not dive quickly like the falcons and eagles. Rather, they move very quickly during level flight. Some researchers believe that they might be the fastest level-flighted bird in the world, although evidence has not yet proven this.
12. Spur Winged Goose (Plectropterus gambensis)
Speed: 88 mph (141.6 kmh)
Range: Sub-saharan Africa
Lifespan: About 11 years
Diet: Plant matter like grains, fruits, seeds, aquatic plants, and stems
Spur Winged Geese are one of the largest waterfowl species found in Africa. It is also the largest goose in the world, despite its incredible flying speeds.
In the winter, they have to migrate very long distances, so their high speeds aid in that.
13. Common Swifts (Apus apus)
Speed: 69.3 mph (111 kmh)
Range: Western Europe to eastern Asia, northern Scandinavia, China, and North Africa. The winter months are spent in southern Africa.
Lifespan: Up to 21 years
Diet: Flying insects and spiders
Predators: Eurasian Hobbies, Sparrowhawks, and Buzzards
Most Common Swifts will fly at speeds around 22-26 mph (35.4-41.8 kmh), but when they are mating, they aim to fly much faster. Most birds recorded topped out at speeds around 45 mph (72.4 kmh), but one was recorded flying as fast as 69.3 mph (111 kmh). These birds manage to all but double their speeds during their mating season by altering the shape of their wings and the way they fly.
Although Common Swifts only use their top speeds for courtship, their flying habits are impressive in another way. They are able to stay in the air for a total of 10 months at a time without stopping or landing.
14. Saker Falcon (Falco cherrug)
Speed: 93 mph (149.6 kmh) (MAX normal flight), 200 mph (321.8 kmh) (diving)
Range: Semi-desert and forested areas of eastern Europe to central Asia
Lifespan: About 5-7 years
Diet: Small mammals such as squirrels, hamsters, gerbils, and hares as well as birds like quail, sand-grouse, pheasants, ducks, herons, and raptors.
Saker Falcons are endangered, but they are one of the fastest birds on this list. Similar to the Peregrine Falcon, the Saker Falcon can reach speeds up to 200 mph when it’s diving. Even when it’s flying normally, it can still soar at incredible speeds, up to 93 mph.
These birds will dive to catch their prey, paralyzing the animal with one quick strike of their talons. They are such incredible hunters that they are sometimes able to catch and kill prey that is larger than itself.
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Fastest Birds On Land
15. Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
Speed: 45 mph (72.4 kmh)
Range: Sub-Saharan Africa
Lifespan: Up to 50 years
Diet: plant matter like seeds and flowers, locusts, and sometimes carrion
Predators: Cheetahs, lions, leopards, hyenas, African wild dogs
Ostriches are flightless due to their sheer size, but they don’t need wings when they can run up to 45 mph. These birds can run so fast that they are the fastest animal on two legs.
Their legs are the sole reason they’re able to run so quickly for long distances. The muscles in their legs are incredibly powerful so that they could kill an adult human with a single kick. Their running strides are also 10-15 feet (32.8-49.2 meters), aiding in their speed.
The wings are small for their body size and do not allow the bird to fly. However, they still have a purpose because they help the Ostrich stay balanced, and help them to steer. They are able to quickly change directions just by slightly moving their wings.
To further help with balance, an Ostrich’s center of gravity is located perfectly between the wings and legs. Clearly, balance is a very important aspect of running at high speeds and prevents the Ostrich from toppling over.
16. Greater Rhea (Rhea americana)
Speed: 35 mph (56.3 kmh)
Range: Southeastern South America
Lifespan: Up to 13 years
Diet: Grass, leguminous crops, and grain make up most of their diet. They will also eat small birds, fish, snakes, and insects.
Predators: Cougars, Pampas Cats, and humans
The Greater Rhea is the largest bird in the Americas. Like the Ostrich, it is also flightless due to its incredible size.
Although they are large and fast, they do still have predators and need to protect themselves. To do so, they will gather in flocks of up to 100 birds when they’re not mating.
17. Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)
Speed: 31 mph (50 kmh)
Lifespan: Up to 20 years
Diet: Fruits, seeds, insects, and small mammals
Emus are also very similar to ostriches, except they are smaller and look more disheveled. Just like the Ostrich and Great Rhea, Emus are too large to fly, but they use their powerful legs to run quickly
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Fastest Bird In Water
18. Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua)
Speed: 22.3 mph (36 kmh)
Range: Antarctic Peninsula and the sub-Antarctic islands
Lifespan: Up to 13 years
Diet: Fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods
Predators: Brown skuas, waddell seals, leopard seals, fur seals, and southern sea-lions
Gentoo Penguins are the world’s third largest penguin species, but they are the fastest bird in water. Their bodies are very muscular and streamlined, allowing them to swim underwater at speeds up to 22.3 mph (36 kmh).