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The Fastest Bird

Common SwiftA recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic caught my eye. A little boy goes up to his mother to ask her what's the fastest animal, and the comic then shows four different responses from different types of people. It's the biologist's response that grabbed my attention, "a descending peregrine falcon". That's a little factoid you see all over the place. And peregrine falcons are pretty darn fast, with a reported top speed of 242 mph in a dive. But that caveat about it being in a dive is the part that makes the record suspect. Is it really fair to call a peregrine falcon the fastest bird when it's really just falling - not generating the thrust with it's own muscle power. Heck, put me in a spandex body suit and let me jump off a high enough point, and I could briefly become the world's fastest animal. In fact, that's what the sport of speed skydiving is all about, with a record top speed of 330 mph - faster than even the falcons.

So, how fast is the fastest bird that's not cheating? With the manner in which human built airplanes so drastically outperform cars, you might think it's similar in the animal kingdom. If cheetah's can clock in at 70 mph, the fastest birds must surely be in the triple digits, right? Well, maybe not. While there are claims of a few birds being recording flying (not falling) over 100 mph (such as the needle-tailed swift), those claims aren't particularly reliable, and other researchers haven't been able to make measurements to match them. The fastest reliable claim I could find was from a BBC article from a few years ago, Supercharged swifts take flight speed record. The headline was referring to the common swift, not the needle-tailed variety. According to the article:

During the study, they clocked common swifts flying at 75km/h (20.8m/s; 47mph), with one swift registering a top speed of 111.6km/h (31m/s; 69.3mph).

That is the highest confirmed speed achieved by a bird in level flight, the researchers say.

69.3 mph - that's right around what cheetahs can do. And while it's not as blistering as the 242 mph attributed to the peregrine falcon, it's still pretty darn fast. And swifts also happen to be my favorite of all dinosaurs - not just for their high speed, but also for the fact that they spend practically their entire lives on the wing - eating, mating, and even sleeping in the air, only coming down to lay their eggs and raise their young. In fact, that means that young swifts spend their first few years completely in the air until they're old enough to mate.

So the next time someone asks you what the fastest animal is, instead of giving credit to that cheating falcon, you can give dual credit to cheetahs and swifts, while also mentioning the vagaries of determining the fastest animal when they don't exactly willingly participate in races.

More Info on the Awesomeness of Swifts:

Image Source: Wikipedia


Why settle for 330mph when you can go supersonic? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Bull_Stratos
Maybe because jumping from 4km is much cheaper than from 38km, but Formula1 and Nascar has restrictions due to price as well. 330mph is also what N609TR regularly hits at 25,000ft: http://flightaware.com/live/flight/N609TR

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