Whether soaring through the air, sprinting across the land, or even swimming through frigid waters, birds (as a collective) are multifaceted speed-demons. Their various adaptive morphologies allow them to reach seemingly impossible speeds, which help them catch prey, avoid predators, or simply travel efficiently. The following list highlights some of the swiftest champions across multiple disciplines.
Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)
The peregrine falcon cruises at an impressive 40 - 60 miles per hour. However, when it comes time to hunt other birds, small mammals, and reptiles, this guy can dive at speeds upwards of 242 mph. To put that in perspective, Formula One race cars top out at around 223 mph. This incredible, death-from-above skill set makes the peregrine falcon not only the fastest bird in the world but the fastest animal, period. Despite this crown, peregrine falcons still have to watch out for other birds of prey, including the next one on this list.
Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)
The golden eagle is a close second to the peregrine falcon in terms of raw speed. It is the only other bird in the world that can reach the 200 mph threshold while diving for prey (mostly consisting of small mammals, as well as fish, birds, and reptiles). While soaring, the golden eagle can reach speeds of 30 mph. What is particularly impressive about these statistics is that they are logged by quite a large bird. With a wingspan of 6.5 - 9+ feet, a height of about 33 inches, and weighing upwards of 13.5 pounds, the golden eagle is one of the largest birds in North America. On top of its raw speed, the golden eagle also has remarkable endurance, able to fly in the neighborhood of 125 miles without landing.
Gray Headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma)
Diving is one thing, but when I think about the fastest birds, I picture flying through the air at remarkable speeds. The Guinness World Record for fastest level flight goes to the Gray Headed Albatross. In 2004, French and British researchers working in the sub-Antarctic clocked this bird flying at 78.9 mph. It did not just hit this peak speed and then ease off, but it maintained this pace for over eight hours during a storm while heading home to the aptly named Bird Island, South Georgia. This island is quite the hub for the Gray Headed Albatross. In 2006, there were 46,000 documented pairs. I wonder if they ever race each other?
Special Mention: White-Throated Needletail (Hirundapus caudacutus)
Though the Gray Headed Albatross holds the record for the fastest (verified) level flight, some contend that the white-throated needletail may actually be faster. One study claimed to have registered a blistering 105 mph flight speed. However, the measurement methods were not published, and this clocking has never been replicated. Nonetheless, casual observation shows that the white-throated needletail is fast and worthy of further investigation and a quick mention here.
Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
The flightless ostrich is a quintessential sprinter. Not only is it the fastest running bird, but it is the fastest animal on two legs. The ostrich takes the gold with a top speed of 45 mph. They can blaze across the plains of Sub-Saharan Africa using their exceptionally powerful legs, which propel them with a stride length of between 10 - 15 feet. In a hypothetical footrace, the South American greater rhea (Rhea americana) would take the silver, with a top speed of 35 mph. The bronze would go to the Australian emu, following closely behind at 31 mph.
Gentoo Penguin (Pygoscelis papua)
Penguins are flightless and clumsy on land, but they can really move in the water. Their insulated, muscular bodies and paddle-shaped flippers create a powerful, streamlined vessel once they slide into the frigid waters of the Antarctic Ocean. There they can reach speeds of 22.3 mph. This comes in handy when hunting fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods, avoiding predators like seals and sea lions, or seemingly just having fun in an otherwise barren and difficult environment. These cute and impressive creatures can be found in the Antarctic Peninsula and numerous sub-Antarctic islands around the icy continent.
Ruby-Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)
Hummingbirds do not rival the traveling speed of any of the above entries, but they do shine in terms of the phenomenal rate at which they flap their wings. The ruby-throated hummingbird, in particular, is the ultimate stand-out. Even the baseline rate of 53 beats per second is hard to imagine, let alone its maximum capacity of 200 beats per second (compared to other hummingbirds that tap out at about 90 bps). The ruby-throated hummingbird is a sucker for love, typically reserving this metabolically-taxing pulse for courtship. Whatever the occasion and species, hummingbirds' ridiculously rapid flapping rate allows them to dart around sporadically. This includes flying backward, which no other kind of bird can do.
Birds have many types of top gears. Determining which ones are the fastest in the world requires several different yardsticks and stopwatches. There are the blink-and-you'll-miss-it divers, the F18 flyers, the lightning-bolt sprinters, and even the humble penguins who get on the board in their own unique way. No matter what corner of the globe or environment is being examined, if you have the right equipment and a keen eye, there are exceptionally fast birds to be found.