Birding Basics of the Fastest Birds In North America

From outwitting predators to raising a family, being fast can boost a bird’s chances of survival. Learn the birding basics of a few fast-moving species!

Being fast has its advantages for birds. In outwitting predators, raising a family or being the first to recognize a new source of food, being fast can boost a bird’s chances of survival. Who wins the race in your yard? Learn the birding basics of these fast-moving bird species and you can decide!

Fastest Nest Builders
Most birds spend several days to as long as two weeks getting their home just right, but a pair of mourning doves can quickly throw together a loose platform of sticks in just a few hours. The flimsy construction may be finished in a single morning or spread over a couple of days; the male is prone to interrupting work to pursue the female. Why the hurry? Mourning doves may raise as many as six broods in a single year, each one in a new nest.

Fastest to Hatch
Most common backyard birds’ eggs hatch in 11 to 14 days, once the female starts sitting tight on that precious clutch. On occasion, house wren eggs may hatch in only nine days, although 12 days is more typical. Some house wren eggs have taken 16 days to hatch, which is more common with blue jays. You’ll know the moment, however, because the babies begin cheeping.

Birding Basics: Fastest Birds in AmericaBill Leman Photography
Bill Leman Photography Turkey poults; Fastest to leave the nest

Fastest to Leave the Nest after Hatching
Caring for youngsters usually requires at least 10 days in the nest, and several days after they leave or “fledge.” But some bird babies are up and running around as soon as they break out of the shell. Baby killdeer, quail, grouse, wild turkeys and sandpipers of all sorts are precocious, fuzzy-feathered and able to run as soon as they enter the world. When the clutch hatches, the mother leads the babies off in a group to forage, offering her sheltering wings at naptime.

Fastest to Sing in the Morning
You’d have to set your alarm for a solid hour or two before sunrise to catch the morning song of the American robin. Each bird species begins singing when the light intensity reaches a certain point. Robins respond to a much lower level of light than others. Think of the light a single candle throws at a distance of 1 foot. Now, divide that by 100. According to naturalist Aldo Leopold, that’s enough light—.01 candlepower—to inspire a robin to burst into song in spring. Even the glow of sodium-vapor streetlights may set robins singing, long before dawn.

Fastest to Hand-Tame
A handful of nuts makes a great bribe to coax birds into eating out of your hand. Bold, curious chickadees are usually the fastest to check out the new “feeder,” followed by their titmice cousins. Nuthatches, especially the tiny red-breasted, are also relatively easy to hand-tame. Try the trick with winter finches, too—pine siskins, redpolls, crossbills and grosbeaks from the North, which are often less wary of humans than other feeder visitors.

Fastest Bug Catchers
It’s not easy to discern how many flying insects go down the hatch of a single swallow, swift or purple martin every day, but it’s a lot. Tirelessly coursing the air at about 30 mph, these incredible insect eaters gulp down anything and everything, from tiny gnats to big dragonflies and butterflies. Each species has its own preferred altitude: Tree swallows usually stay within 40 feet of the ground, for instance, while purple martins patrol as high as 500 feet.

Fastest Metabolism
We’d have to chomp 300 cheeseburgers a day to keep up with the eating habits of hummingbirds, if our body worked as fast as theirs. The metabolism of a hummingbird is faster than that of almost every other animal on earth; only the body of the tiny shrew works faster. In flight, a hummer’s heart rate is around 1,000 beats a minute. Its digestion is 70 times faster than ours. This warp-speed metabolism slows down when a hummer isn’t flying. That’s why, although you might not guess from the constant buzz at your feeder, hummingbirds spend most of their waking hours perched and resting.

Fastest Migrator

Birding Basics: Fastest birdsCarol L. Edwards
Carol L. Edwards Ruby-throated hummingbird: Fastest metabolism

Fall migration for the blackpoll warbler is a supermarathon combined with a binge of weight gain and loss. Their epic trip from northern Canada to South America includes 2,000 miles across the open water of the Atlantic Ocean. Small but mighty, the chickadee-size birds may fly that stretch nonstop, for more than 80 hours! To get fuel for the flight, these birds go on an eating binge and may almost double their weight in a week to 10 days, although the fattest blackpolls still weigh less than an ounce. They burn off any extra fat by the time they reach South America.

Fastest Wingbeat
Hummingbirds win this one, hands down. The smaller the hummingbird, the faster its wings beat. The ruby-throated hummingbird beats about 50 times a second. The giant hummingbird of the Andes, about the same length as a cardinal, hums at 12 beats a second. The bee hummingbird of Cuba, the smallest bird on earth at only 2 inches from bill tip to tail tip, buzzes along at 80 beats per second.

Fastest Horizontal Fliers
Good luck focusing those binoculars on a red-breasted merganser in flight. This large duck easily reaches 70 mph. The golden eagle, with its 6- to 7½-foot wingspan, is right up there, too, sometimes reaching about 80 mph if it’s in a steep glide. Snipes of all sorts, including our North American Wilson’s snipe, are so famously fast and erratic that the word “sniper” was coined for the shooters who could bring down such a difficult target. A snipe’s usual flight speed? About 60 mph. Among backyard birds, the prize goes to the mourning dove, which typically rockets along at about 40 mph, zooming to 55 mph when it goes into high gear to escape a predator. As a comparison, most birds fly at about 25 mph.

Fastest Bird on Land
In North America, our speediest land bird is the greater roadrunner. Its usual pace is 20 mph, and it can reach about 26 mph in top gear. Still, it’s a slowpoke compared to the ostrich, which can sprint at 50 mph.

Fastest Bird on Earth
Not much time to get out of the way if you’re the prey of a peregrine falcon—the superbly aerodynamic bird can reach almost 250 mph when it tucks its wings and goes into a head-first dive. That’s by far the fastest speed of any animal on earth. Even eagles can’t top that; the highest speed in a dive is around 150 mph for the golden, 100 mph for the bald.

SLOWEST NORTH AMERICAN BIRDS

  • Slowest fliers: House sparrow, 15-18 mph, and American woodcock, 5 mph (circling courtship flight)
  • Slowest wingbeat: Large birds, like condors, pelicans and albratrosses
  • Slowest nest builder: Baltimore and Bullock’s oriole, up to 15 days
  • Slowest to hatch: California condor, 56 days
  • Slowest to leave the nest after hatching: Turkey vulture, 60-70 days, and red-tailed hawk, 40-50 days
  • The superbly aerodynamic FALCON can reach almost 250 mph when it goes into a head-first dive.

Birding Basics: Fastest Birds

Baltimore orioles: Slowest nest builder

Photo: Ted Weaver

Sally Roth
Sally Roth gardens in desertlike conditions in the High Rockies but she can't resist plants with colorful foliage, like coleus.