Astonishing Flying Speed

Birds’ flight speed is highly variable depending on weather conditions, capabilities of individual species, situation they are in on the given time—chasing prey or being chased by predator or in the midst of a storm—diving or flying in a level flight, etc. Depending upon the situation there is considerable difference between the speed at which a bird can fly and the speed at which it normally does fly. For example, a vulture loitering in the sky in search of food might maximize endurance; a seabird heading towards distant foraging grounds would maximize range. Flying for longer time does not necessarily mean going farthest. A bird flying for 7 hours at 20 km/h would cover 140 kilometers, whereas another flying for 6 hours at 25 km/h would cover 150 kilometers. In addition to above facts there is little relationship between the size of a bird and its flight speed. Both, tiny hummingbird and large geese can reach roughly the same maximum speeds.

Fastest bird on the planet 

Peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) is known for the greatest airspeed velocity. It can attain 65–90 km/h (40-56 mph) (average horizontal speed), 105–115 km/h (65-71 mph) (maximum horizontal speed) and almost 400 km/h (249 mph) (maximum air speed) in its hunting dives.

Peregrine falcon

Peregrine falcon

Although the Peregrine falcon is generally regarded as the fastest bird in the world, there are people who do not subscribe to this claim. Their argument is, it is the fastest only in gravity aided flight while diving or “stooping”, as it’s called in aviation. While diving it becomes not only the fastest moving bird, but also the fastest animal on the planet. Hence it can’t be called the leader of the fastest “fliers”. Although, the often quoted diving speed of the bird is as high as 400 km/h the accuracy of this speed is unknown. Speed of a diving falcon is difficult to measure accurately. The required instrumentation is complex, and the dive is a brief, rare event that takes place at unpredictable places and times. The fact behind the above claims and counter claims is difficult to find, but the most baffling aspect is how does the bird manages to pull out of such a high-speed dive, without blacking out?

Most favoured with falconers this ultimate killing machine is one of the most widespread birds, found in every continent except Antarctica and S. America. About 50 cm long in size, with 17 races and cosmopolitan distribution, the peregrines, despite being ‘the fastest fliers’ do not succeed in every hunting attempt, rather fail in many of their dives. Their diet includes a wide variety of birds — about 132 to 200 species — depending upon the particular race. They also take mammals, reptiles, amphibians and even fish.

Peregrines are like jet fighters among birds of prey. While hunting they combine agility, high-speed and precision with highly skilled acrobatics. Its classically designed body and the posture adopted by it, during the dive dramatically reduces the aerodynamic drag and gives it the speed like that of shooting star. The most astonishing part is in the midst of a dive at such a great speed if the bird is threatened or situation compels it to withdraw, it can change its path without any difficulty, even just a few milliseconds, before making an impact.

Superlative flier of North America

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is the largest raptor in North America and is also a superlative flier. It is equipped with broad, long wings with somewhat finger-like indentations on the tips. They are unique in the sense that they often fly in a slight dihedral, which means the wings are often held in a slight, upturned V. A typical, unhurried soaring speed in golden eagles is around 45–52 km/h (28–32 mph) (averages horizontal speed). When hunting or displaying, they are capable of very fast gliding, attaining speeds of up to 190 km/h (120 mph). When diving (or stooping) for prey or during territorial displays golden eagle can reach spectacular speed of up to 240 to 320 km/h (150 to 200 mph).

Many experts believe although less agile and maneuverable, golden eagle is apparently quite the equal and possibly even superior to the peregrine falcon’s stooping and gliding speeds. This places the golden eagle as one of the two fastest moving living animals on earth. Most of the fast flights of golden eagles have a purpose. They may be for chasing away the intruders from the territory or pursuing the prey, etc., but some other flights, such as those by solitary birds or between well-established breeding pairs, seem to function merely as acts of playfulness.

This powerful eagle, with a wingspan of 2.3 meters, has a length between 26-40 inches and weigh up to 7 kg. It can carry weight of about 5 kg in ordinary circumstances, when disturbed at a kill or otherwise sensing that a rapid exit is necessary, it can tackle heavier loads. It dives upon its prey from great heights. With long, broad wings the bird can soar for quite a long time. Golden eagle has very keen eyesight. It can spot prey from a distance of nearly two kilometres. Humans would need very powerful binoculars to equal the eagle’s powerful vision. Once a prey is spotted the bird dives with an astonishing speed. It can reach great altitudes, from 10000 to 15000 feet.

It is believed to be the most powerful bird in Eurasia. Its speed, power and lethal striking capabilities are legendary. Perhaps because of its above qualities and majestic looks golden eagle was symbol of state authority for many empires and civilizations including Aryans, Romans, Austro-Hungarians, Czarist Russia, Napoleonic France and the Prussian Empire. Today, it forms the central motif of the Indian Air Force.

Contrary to its name, there is not much of the ‘golden’ material in the bird. The adult bird is actually a large, dark brown bird, about the size of a common vulture and has golden tinge only at the back of its head and neck. It has Holarctica distribution (formerly a unified, circumpolar biogeographic region, embracing what are now known as N. America, Europe and Asia (i.e. Laurasia). In India, it is found all along the inaccessible higher reaches of Himalayas as well as the trans-Himalaya region, stretching from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh. 

Vikings’ favourite  

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), also spelled gerfalcon, it is the largest of the falcons. For centuries it has been a precious hunting bird, highly valued among the Vikings. As far as flying speed is concerned Gyrfalcon is also among the fastest fliers. It has speed of 80-110 km/h or 50-68 mph (averages horizontal speed); 145 km/h or 90 mph (maximum horizontal speed); 187–209 km/h or 116-130 mph (average diving speed); 209 km/h or 130 mph (maximum air speed).

Typical prey of the bird includes waterfowls and ptarmigan, which it may take in flight. It has also been observed feeding on fish and mammals, which can range in size from shrews to marmots (sometimes thrice the weight of the assaulting falcon), and often includes lemmings, voles, ground squirrels, hares and rarely also bats. They are rarely observed eating carrion.

Originally it was thought to be a bird of tundra and mountains only. In June 2011, it became known that during winter the bird spends significant amount of time on sea ice far from land. Like other hierofalcons (four closely related species of falcon which make up the subgenus HierofalcoLanner falconLaggar falconSaker falcon and Gyrfalcon), it usually hunts in a horizontal pursuit, unlike the peregrine’s speedy stoop from a height. Usually the prey is killed on the ground, whether it is captured there, or if the victim is a flying bird, forced to the ground.

It breeds on Arctic coasts and tundra, and the islands of northern North America, Europe, and Asia. They are quite large falcons, about the size of the largest buteos (buzzard hawks). Their wings are large and broad and the tail is longer than the peregrine falcon. Males are 48 to 61 cm (19 to 24 in) long, weigh 805 to 1,350 g and have a wingspan from 110 to 130 cm (43 to 51 in). Females are bulkier and larger, at 51 to 65 cm (20 to 26 in) long, 124 to 160 cm (49 to 63 in) wingspan, and of 1,180 to 2,100 g weight.

Small speedster that hardly touches the ground

White-throated spinetailed or Needletail swift   (CC BY-SA 3.0)

White-throated spinetailed swift (also known as White-throated needletail swift (CC BY-SA 3.0)

White-throated needletail swift (Hirundapus caudacutus), also known as needle-tailed swift or spine-tailed swift, is a large member of its family. It is commonly reputed to reach speeds of up to 170 km/h (105 mph) (maximum horizontal speed), though this has not been verified.

It has very short legs which are used only for clinging to vertical surfaces. This East Asian bird builds its nest in rock crevices in cliffs or hollow trees. They are seldom seen on the ground and spend most of their lives in the air, catching insects on the wings.

These sleek-bodied birds breed in rocky hills of central Asia and southern Siberia. This species is migratory, wintering south in the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and Australia. It’s a rare vagrant in Western Europe, but has been recorded as far west as Sweden, Norway and Great Britain. In June 2013, this mid-sized bird was spotted in the United Kingdom, the first sighting in 22 years. This bird flew into a wind turbine and died; its body was sent to a museum.

Needletaild swifts get their name from the spiny end to the tail, which is not forked as in the typical swifts. They are similar in size to an Alpine swift, but a different build, with a heavier barrel-like body. Except for a white throat and white under-tail they are black in colour, which extends on to the flanks, and a somewhat paler brown back.

Fastest horizontal flyer

The team that measured the flight of a Grey-headed albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma) shows that this is likely the fastest horizontal flyer in the world. In a 2004 report published by French and British researchers working in the sub-Antarctic, the mean estimated groundspeed recorded for a satellite-tagged, grey-headed albatross hit 127 km/h (78.9 mph).

Grey-headed Albatross (CC BY 2.0)

Grey-headed Albatross (CC BY 2.0)

The bird sustained this speed for more than 8 hours while returning to its nest at Bird Island, South Georgia, in the middle of an Antarctic storm.

The report was published by Paulo Catry, Richard A. Phillips and John P. Croxall of the British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environmental Research Council.

Also known as the grey-headed mollymawk, the albatross nests in very southerly locations and feeds farther south than any other bird of its kind.

According to “Bird Families of the World,” the grey-headed albatross averages 81 cm (32 in) long and possesses a 2.2 m (7 ft 2 in) wingspan. The species can range in weight from 2.8 to 4.4 kg (6.2 to 9.7 lb), with an average mass of 3.65 kg (8.0 lb).

As of 2006, the largest concentration of the grey-headed albatross was in fact on South Georgia Island, with 46,000 documented pairs.

Speedster that spends most of its life in sky

Swift - Common swift (CC BY-SA 2.0)Common swift (Apus apus) that spends most of its lifetime flying can power itself to a speed of 111.6 km/h (69.3 mph) flying horizontally and even upwards. Details of the bird’s high speeds are reported in the Journal of Avian Biology.

Confirmation of the new record came as Dr Henningsson and Lund University colleagues Dr Christoffer Johansson and Professor Anders Hedenstrom filmed the bird using two high speed cameras. Using this equipment they were able to deduce the bird’s flight speed and wing-beat frequency.

During the study, they clocked common swifts flying at 75 km/h (47 mph), with one swift registering a top speed of 111.6 km/h (69.3 mph). According to the researchers that is the highest confirmed speed achieved by a bird in level flight — flying under its own power takes much more effort.

The birds reach top speed during bouts of mating known as ‘screaming parties’, say scientists. During this period swifts fly at record speed. It is reported to reach a top speed of 169 km/h (47 m/s; 105 mph). But the record is difficult to verify as the methods used to measure the bird’s speed have never been published, says avian flight specialist Dr Per Henningsson of Lund University in Sweden.

Extraordinarily, the birds occasionally reached top speed while performing steep climbing flights. Also surprising is the circumstances in which they fly so fast. Usually, common swifts fly at a relatively consistent speed of 36 to 43 km/h (22 to 26 mph), regardless of whether they are flying to a roost, migrating or flying in a wind tunnel, says Dr Henningsson. But they “turbo-boost” their speed when they are showing off.

When common swifts come together to mate, both breeders and non-breeders fly together in a social display, which scientists call “screaming parties” based on the vocalisations the birds emit. “They were generally known for flying very fast during this behaviour,” says Dr Henningsson.

“However, there were no really certain measurements of how fast these flights are.

“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.”

That means the birds need to be able to radically alter their aerodynamic performance, by altering their wing profile and physiology, depending on whether they are flying normally or in a screaming party.

Long distance traveler 

Carrier pigeon

Homing pigeon used as a carrier pigeon

Homing pigeon is a variety of domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica) derived from the rock pigeon. The wild rock pigeon has an innate homing ability, meaning that they generally do not lose track of their routes and return to their homes even from far off places. Flights as long as 1,800 km (1,100 miles) have been recorded by birds in competitive pigeon racing. Their average flying speed over moderate distances is around 80 km/h (50 miles per hour), but there are people who claim that top racing homing pigeons can reach speed of up to 140 km/h (90 miles per hour) for short distances.

It is claimed that homing racing pigeons can fly 1100 km (700 miles) in a single day. It is also said that they have been recorded flying at 177 km/h (110 miles per hour) making them the fastest flying birds with the fastest speed ever recorded on a self-powered flight. The accuracy of their flying speed has not been verified.

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