A debate about which was the faster of two birds is supposedly what inspired the Guinness book of Records. And the answer to what is the fastest bird in the world depends on a couple of things: where it is and what it’s doing.
The fastest stooping bird in the world
Stooping is the term used to describe the high-speed attack dive of a bird of prey. The bird will hover up high searching for something to eat before closing its wings and diving downwards before snatching the prey from the ground or sometimes during mid-flight.
The aerodynamic shape it creates combined with the force of gravity means stooping birds can reach very high speeds and will often stun or kill the prey on impact.
The peregrine falcon is the fastest stooping bird in the world with its streamlined body, powerful muscles, and swept-back, long pointed wing making it perfect for these rapid dives.
In level flight peregrine falcons can reach speeds of between 65 and 90 km/h but when diving can reach over 380 km/h. This is even faster than the ultra-fast bullet trains which have a maximum speed of about 320 km/h.
The actual speed that a peregrine falcon can reach will depend on the speed of the wind and the length of the dive. And what’s even more remarkable is that at the end of the stoop, it can deliver a controlled blow to the prey and carry it away.
The saker falcon, a large species that breeds from Central Europe to East Asia, can reach speeds of up to 320 km/h while the golden eagle usually stoops at about 240 km/h which is all the more impressive given their size. It’s unusual for them to hunt in this way preferring to fly low and strike prey with its talons.
The fastest flying bird in the world
It’s difficult to get an accurate measurement of the speed of birds during level flight. Using Doppler radar to track birds has found that most birds have a flight speed of about 40 km/h but this depends on external factors such as headwinds and tailwinds.
Ducks and other waterfowl tend to fly at about double this speed mainly due to the shape of their bodies. They have relatively small wings and therefore have to fly faster just to stay aloft.
It’s commonly agreed that the fastest flying bird in the world is the white-throated needletail, also known as the needle-tailed swift or the spine-tailed swift. It is a migratory bird that breeds in Central Asia and southern Sibreria and winters in India, Asia, and Australia.
It is reputed to reach speeds of up to 170 km/h although this has never been scientifically proven.
Other birds that fly super-fast are the gyrfalcon reaching speeds of up to 145 km/h and the grey-headed albatross (127 km/h).
However, the fastest verified flying bird is the common swift which was measured in 2009 by researchers from Lund University in Sweden flying at 112 km/h. The team of scientists used high-speed cameras to scientifically measure the speed of swifts during mating flights known as screaming parties.
Common swifts usually fly at fairly consistent speeds of 36-43 km/h but when they are showing off to potential mates, they turboboost their speed, by altering their wing profile and physiology.
The fastest bird on land in the world
If a bird can’t fly, then to escape predators it needs to be able to run. Many birds that through evolution lost the ability to fly have developed long, powerful legs to compensate.
The fastest running bird in the world is the ostrich which can reach speeds of up to 70 km/h. The main predators of ostriches are the lion, hyena, and cheetah, which is the world’s fastest land animal reaching speeds of up to 120 km/h.
Ostriches have an enlarged pelvic girdle to help them run fast and reduced pectoral muscles to conserve metabolic energy. Although ostriches can’t use their wings to fly, they hold them out when running to help them balance, as well as during courtship rituals.
Greater rheas which are related to ostriches but are found in South America can reach speeds of up to 55 km/h while the emu, a flightless bird endemic to Australia can run at 50 km/h, using their three-toed feet and tiny wings to keep them stable as they go.
Roadrunners are the fastest birds running birds that are also able to fly, clocking speeds of up to 33 km/h, although they usually prefer sprinting to flying and will generally only fly to escape predators.