10 of the World’s Fastest Birds

From the peregrine falcon to the common swift, meet the cheetahs of the sky.

Peregrine falcon flying
Peregrine falcons are found on all continents are found on all continents except Antarctica. Javier Fernández Sánchez / Getty Images

The cheetah will almost always win a race on land. But in the sky, the contest for the fastest bird depends on whether you're measuring level flight or speed while diving after prey.

Researchers aren't in agreement about which bird gets top honors. In fact, the Guinness Book of World Records was actually created in the 1950s when Sir Hugh Beaver, managing director of the Guinness Brewery, got into an argument with friends about the fastest game bird in Europe. No one could find an answer in a reference book, so Beaver decided to create one.

Here are some of the speediest fliers in the skies.

1
of 10

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcon upside down hunting stoop
When diving for prey, peregrine falcons can reach speeds of 200 mph (320 kph). Ian Dyball / Getty Images

When in level flight, the powerful peregrine falcon zooms at not-too-shabby speeds averaging 25 to 34 mph (40-55 km/h). But it’s when this bird goes after prey that it really shows its spectacular abilities. The peregrine soars to great heights, then drops into a deep dive — called stooping — at speeds up to 200 mph (320 km/h). To put that into perspective, a cheetah can regularly reach speeds up to 70 mph (112 km/h) and a greyhound can reach 45 mph (72 km/h).

Peregrine falcons are one of the most common birds of prey and are found on all continents except Antarctica. They have been trained for hunting for centuries. In the U.S., the American and Arctic peregrine falcon subspecies were listed as endangered in 1970, but they rebounded after restrictions on DDT and other pesticides and due to captive breeding programs, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

2
of 10

Golden Eagle

Close-Up Of Golden Eagle Flying Over Field
Golden eagles are protected by law. Fernando Sanchez De Castro / EyeEm / Getty Images

One of the largest raptors in North America, the golden eagle is a powerful brown bird with trademark golden feathers on its head and neck. When preying on rabbits, ground squirrels, and prairie dogs, the golden eagle dives to speeds of more than 150 mph (241 km/h). Golden eagles use their massive talons to snatch their prey and have even been known to take down deer and livestock. Once feared and hunted by ranchers, they are now protected by law.

3
of 10

White-throated Needletail

White-throated needletail
The white-throated needletail has distinctive white markings. H_Yasui / Getty Images

While the peregrine falcon and golden eagle show remarkable speed when diving after prey, other birds are much faster in level flight. Although not scientifically proven, the white-throated needletail is believed by many researchers to be the fastest bird flying in a straight line. Formerly known as the spine-tailed swift, the cigar-shaped bird with the striking white throat can reportedly reach speeds up to 105 mph (169 km/h).

4
of 10

Eurasian Hobby

Eurasian hobby (Falco subbuteo)
The Eurasian hobby is known for its aerial acrobatics. Denja1 / Getty Images

Recognized for their acrobatic skills, Eurasian hobbies are so athletic that they can pass food to each other mid-flight as they are soaring through the skies. These falcons are believed to be able to reach speeds up to 99 mph (159 km/h) when they snatch small birds and dragonflies out of the air. They prefer open woodland, heathland, and farmland, and they can be found in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

5
of 10

Frigatebird

Great frigatebird (Fregata minor) in flight
Frigatebirds can fly for weeks at a time. Jonne Seijdel / Getty Images

Frigatebirds can fly for weeks at a time. They spend most of their lives soaring in the clouds, often sleeping mid-flight. These sea birds catch their prey from the water or from the air. Sometimes they bother other birds, irritating them so much that they cough up whatever fish they’ve eaten and the frigatebird swipes it, says NPR. Frigatebirds do all this at remarkable speeds, reaching an estimated 95 mph (153 km/h) during flight. Males have a distinctive red pouch below their beaks which they inflate during breeding.

6
of 10

Gyrfalcon

A Gyrfalcon in mid flight.
The gyrfalcon is the largest falcon in the world. Jeff Wendorff / Getty Images

The fierce gyrfalcon is the largest falcon in the world. They usually hunt birds in the open, flying and high and swiftly swooping down on their prey from above. They often hunt birds in open country, sometimes flying high and attacking from above. They also chase their prey, following them from behind, quickly and low to the ground. Some estimates suggest that the gyrfalcon (pronounced "JER-falcon”) flies at least 90 mph (145 km/h) in level flight and 150 mph (241 km/h) when stooping.

7
of 10

Spur-winged Goose

Spur-winged Goose (Plectropterus gambensis) in flight
The spur-winged goose is the largest goose in the world. jez_bennett / Getty Images

This long-necked, mainly black waterfowl has a white face and large white wing patches. It’s Africa’s largest waterfowl and the largest goose in the world. It mostly forages in wetlands and grasslands for plants, but when it hits the skies, it soars. The spur-winged goose is estimated to hit speeds as fast as 88 mph (142 km/h).

8
of 10

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser
The red-breasted merganser has a distinctive head of shaggy feathers. PaulReevesPhotography / Getty Images

This diving duck has a distinctive head of spiky feathers. These quick ducks have been known to fly as fast as 81 mph (130 km/h), but they need help hitting the skies. To get airborne, they must have a running start, reports the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Their legs are situated near their rear, making it harder for them to walk, but their anatomy helps when diving.

9
of 10

Grey-headed Albatross

Grey-headed albatross (Diomedea chrysostoma) in flight
The grey-headed albatross is also known as the grey-headed mollymawk. Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

French and British researchers working in the sub-Antarctic recorded a grey-headed albatross flying an average 78.9 mph (127 km/h) during a foraging trip. In their report, published in the journal The Auk, they said the albatross sustained that speed for nearly nine hours “with virtually no rest” during an Antarctic storm. “Despite its high speed and the storminess of the sea, the albatross still managed to successfully locate and capture prey at a rate comparable to that achieved under less extreme conditions,” the researchers wrote.

10
of 10

Common Swift

common swift in flight
The common swift is built for aerodynamics. mirceax / Getty Images

Although most of these speeds are based on estimates, scientists were able to accurately clock one fast flier. In 2009, researchers from Lund University in southern Sweden used tracking radar to follow common swifts during spring migration, summer roosting flights, and autumn migration. They clocked them flying at 47 mph (75 km/h), with one common swift reaching a top speed of 69.3 mph (111.6 km/h). 

When common swifts get together to mate — at what scientists call "screaming parties" — they turbo boost their speed. "They were generally known for flying very fast during this behavior. However, there were no really certain measurements of how fast these flights are," lead author, Per Henningsson of Lund University told the BBC. “It is remarkable that a bird that otherwise appears to be 'finely tuned' to perform at a narrow range of flight speeds at the same time is able to fly more than twice as fast when it needs to."