10 of the World’s Fastest Birds

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

5 of world's fastest birds illustration

Treehugger / Ellen Lindner

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.

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.

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 150 to 200 mph. 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.

These large birds usually spend time alone or in pairs. They like open or partially open country, particularly near mountains, cliffs, and hills. They're mostly found in the western U.S., rarely in the east.

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).

These birds feed in mid-air, catching insects in their beaks. They seek out thermal currents, often on the edges of bushfires or storm fronts, and have special membranes that cover and protect their eyes while feeding.

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. They're occasionally seen on ships far out at sea and even in North America as rare strays.

of 10

Magnificent Frigatebird

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

Magnificent frigatebirds can fly for weeks at a time. They spend most of their lives soaring in the clouds, often sleeping mid-flight. They rarely flap their wings, but when they do, the wingbeats are slow and deep.

These sea birds catch their prey from the surface of the water or from the air. They do not dive. Sometimes they bother other birds, irritating them so much that they cough up whatever fish they’ve eaten and the magnificent frigatebird swipes it, says NPR. Magnificent 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.

of 10


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. Large and stocky, they usually hunt birds in the open, flying 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.

The female is substantially larger than the male. They breed on Arctic tundra and often perch on the ground.

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, 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).

It mostly forages in wetlands and grasslands for plants. Sometimes it ingests toxic blister beetles and absorbs the poison (cantharidin), making its own flesh toxic for humans to eat. It is still threatened by hunting, though, when farmers shoot because of the threat the goose poses to crops.

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.

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.

These birds will travel long distances to feed, taking trips up to 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers), even during breeding season. They usually pluck food from the ocean's surface but have been known to dive up to 23 feet.

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."

View Article Sources
  1. "Peregrine Falcon Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab Of Ornithology". Allaboutbirds.Org.

  2. "Peregrine Falcon (Falco Peregrinus)." U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2006.

  3. "Golden Eagle Life History, All About Birds, Cornell Lab Of Ornithology". Allaboutbirds.Org.

  4. "Golden Eagle Identification." All About Birds: The Cornell Lab.

  5. "White-throated Needletail." Australian Museum.

  6. "Spurwing Goose." Wildlife Safari.

  7. "Red-Breasted Merganser Life History, All About Birds, Cornell Lab Of Ornithology." The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015.

  8. Catry, Paulo, et al. "Sustained Fast Travel By A Gray-Headed Albatross (Thalassarche Chrysostoma) Riding An Antarctic Storm.The Auk, vol. 121, no. 4, 2004, pp. 1208-1213, doi:10.1093/auk/121.4.1208

  9. "Grey-headed Albatross." Oceanwide Expeditions.

  10. Henningsson, P., et al. "Flight Speeds Of Swifts ( Apus Apus ): Seasonal Differences Smaller Than Expected.Proceedings Of The Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 276, no. 1666, 2009, pp. 2395-2401, doi:10.1098/rspb.2009.0195