Stanley Tate

How fast do birds fly?

Flying is what makes a bird a bird.

To overcome gravity and use powered flight for mobility, birds evolved a set of characteristics that distinguish them from other vertebrates and also constrain their form making birds resemble one another more than do other related animals. Weight reduction is the theme throughout a bird’s body. A bird skeleton is strong, light and rigid. 

Bird bones contain a combination of air spaces and diagonal struts much like the frame of an airplane. A bird’s breast bone is huge relative to ours and has a large keel where all major flight muscles attach. A bird’s pectoral girdle and pelvic girdle are exceptionally strong to protect the chest cavity from the stresses created by flapping wings. 

Except for the lowly bat, mammals haven’t developed these characteristics and can’t fly — unless they buy tickets and stand in long lines. As similar as they are, birds come in all shapes and sizes and with various flying abilities. Quail are only adequate flyers. They are more comfortable on the ground and only fly in short bursts when forced. 

Hummingbirds are agile and fast. They can hover, fly backward and vanish instantly at the first sign of danger. Watching them zoom and dart around the yard you would swear they are the fastest members of the bird tribe. However, their speed is a size-generated illusion. I doubt one could keep up with a fat Canada Goose on a straight course.

Physical ability is not the only determinant of a bird’s flight speed. Wind is a big contributor. Some birds have been reported to fly from Britain to Newfoundland, 2200 miles, in 24 hours — an average of 90 miles per hour. How did they do it? A tail wind pushed them faster than they could ever flap on their own.

Birds don’t fly at just one speed. They fly fastest when they are chasing something they want to eat or if they are being chased by something that wants to eat them. Then there is the steady but urgent migration speed they use to continent-hop. A less hurried flight takes them across your yard. Finally, some birds fly so slowly that all the other birds are backed up behind them. These birds usually only fly in the left lane and have a Florida license plate and an I’M RETIRED bumper sticker.

All that considered, it’s tough to answer the question, “How fast do birds fly?” A good rule of thumb for most feeder birds is 20 to 30 miles per hour. The House Sparrow is among the slowest species at only 15 to 18 miles per hour. But even slow birds can accelerate faster than my 350Z if there is trouble.

Some non-feeder birds can attain astonishing speeds in normal flight. Waterfowl and shorebirds can fly at sustained speeds of 55 to 70 miles per hour. A Red-breasted Merganser was clocked at 80 by a chase plane. The disputed title of the world’s fastest bird is usually awarded to the Peregrine Falcon — it can reach speeds over 200 miles an hour. The title is disputed because the falcon only achieves such speeds in a dive — not in level flight. 

Some argue that the Peregrine shouldn’t be given credit for these speeds because gravity is doing most of the work. Some even say that in addition to gravity the Peregrine Falcon gets the extra speed using a HEMI — but you only hear that from the guys who watch infield owls at Talladega.

How fast can a bird fly? The answer depends on who you ask.



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