For the Birds Radio Program: Superlative Birds

Original Air Date: Nov. 3, 1995

What’s the slowest flying bird in the world? The highest flier? Laura Erickson gives the answers on today’s For the Birds. (4:15) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


I just bought a copy of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Birds, put out by the International Council for Bird Preservation. This book contains a wealth of general information about birds of the world, and my favorite section is about remarkable birds. That’s where we read who the fastest bird in the world. According to this book, it’s the Peregrine Falcon, diving or stooping at 180 miles per hour. Actually, some ornithologists have clocked the Prairie Falcon at over 200, but let’s not quibble. The fastest bird in level flight is a duck—the Common Eider, which easily flies over 47 miles per hour. A hunter who manages to bring one of these speedy creatures down usually regrets it upon sitting down to dinner. Eiders, like mergansers, eat fish, and in turn taste highly fishy. The slowest bird in powered flight, as opposed to hovering in one spot or circling on a thermal, is another game bird, the American Woodcock, who can rev up to only a measly 5 miles per hour. The newest technique for hunting these little morsels is to get a high-tech dog collar that makes a special beep when the dog goes on point. This way not only does the hunter not have to find the bird on his own to begin with, which I admit is hard, but he also doesn’t even need to pay attention to his dog. This so-called sportsman can sit around chatting with newspaper reporters or doing nothing at all until he hears the signal, then mosey on off to find the dog and bring down the slowest bird on earth. Of course, woodcock are pretty erratic fliers, and it does take shooting skill to bring one down, especially when the hunter is tramping through the woods and comes upon one unexpectedly. That’s why I’ve always liked them—they tend to know the woods and be both skilled marksmen and naturalists. Unfortunately, technology has dampened my admiration.

This highest flying bird is Rueppell’s Griffon, a vulture-like bird that has been seen at 37,000 feet. This species has big, broad wings for soaring, and so doesn’t have the heavy oxygen requirements of a fast-flapping bird. The deepest diving bird is the Emperor Penguin, which can dive down to about 870 feet, and has stayed submerged for 18 minutes. Our good old Minnesota loon is the deepest-diving bird that can also fly. Loons have been caught in nets 265 feet below the surface. The fastest swimmer is another penguin, the Gentoo, which can go 17 miles per hour in short bursts. The Eurasian Swift is the most aerial of land birds, remaining airborne for up to three years before touching down to breed. But the Sooty Tern is the most aerial of all. Some of these birds have not come to earth for a landing until they were eight or ten years old. They catch fish by lightly winging along the ocean’s surface, and have a light enough body to feel just fine winging through a lifelong marathon.

The heaviest bird in the world is also the fastest runner, the ostrich. The fastest running bird that can also fly is our good old roadrunner. The bird with the most feathers—at least, the most feathers that someone has actually counted—is the Whistling Swan, which has 25,216 feathers. I bet if someone counted a Trumpeter Swan’s feathers, it could beat that. The bird with the fewest feathers is our own Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which has 940. Again, I bet a Bee Hummingbird has fewer, but for some reason or another, no one has ever gotten around to counting the feathers on one of them. All in all, these remarkable birds really are superlative.