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7 superlative flying animals

Ah, flying. The ability many humans would love to have, but we have to settle for cramped seats in airplanes.

These animals, however, are natural fliers (or gliders in a few cases) and they’re all special at it in their own ways. So from the high flying to the slow flying, are some superior soaring animals.

Heaviest flyer: Great bustard

A great bustard stands in a green field

The great bustard is the heaviest of birds that can take flight. (Photo: Francesco Veronesi/Wikimedia Commons)

Bustards are birds that come in a range of species, but the great bustard stands out among them because they’re the heaviest of birds that can take flight. The great bustard, along with the kori bustard, can reach up to 40 pounds (18 kilograms) and still fly. Some birds, like the Andean condor, can get close to that weight, but not many do. Bustards are compact birds, too. Males only reach about 3.5 feet (1 meter) in height.

The great bustard, predominately found in Europe and Asia, is considered vulnerable as species due to habitat loss. A coalition of organizations attempted to reintroduce the species in England, but differences of opinion on that process led to the project shutting down in 2014.

Fastest while diving: Peregrine falcon

The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on the planet.

The peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on the planet. (Photo: Collins93/Shutterstock)

Ask people what the fastest animal in the world is, and many will guess the cheetah. Cheetahs can reach 75 miles per hour (mph), and that earns them the title of fastest animal on land. When it comes to the whole planet, however, the peregrine falcon has those big cats beat. In its hunting dive, the peregrine falcon is traveling at 240 mph.

So how do peregrine falcons reach such amazing speeds? Peregrines have exceptionally powerful flight muscles and pointed, unslotted feathers that give them a streamlined, slick look. This makes them more aerodynamic, which means they can dive faster. Peregrine falcons also have large hearts and efficient lungs — most birds wouldn’t be able to breathe at these speeds.

All of that combines to make a these dive-bombers so fast that if you blink, you might miss ’em.

Fastest while flapping: Mexican free-tailed bat

Mexican free-tailed bats are among the most common animals in the world.

Mexican free-tailed bats are among the most common animals in the world. (Photo: Ann Froschauer/USFWS/Wikimedia Commons)

Sure, a plummeting peregrine falcon is fast, but you may say that’s just gravity at work. Maybe you’ll be impressed by the Mexican free-tailed bat then.

These bats, also known as the Brazilian free-tailed bat, weigh 11 to 14 grams — about the weight of a AAA battery — and have a wingspan between 12 to 14 inches (30 to 35 centimeters). These bats have been clocked flapping 60 to 100 mph, which means they’re faster than cheetahs, too.

They’re among the most abundant mammals in North America, but habitat destruction may make it hard on them in the future. They roost only in a limited number of locations, albeit in large numbers.

Slowest: American woodcock

An American woodcock sits among twigs and branches

The American woodcock spends most of its time on the ground. (Photo: Dalton Rasmussen/Shutterstock)

Let’s slow down the superlatives here for a moment. Really, really slow them down. Because here’s the American woodcock. These small birds — they’re 10 to 12 inches long and weigh 140 to 230 grams — fly in loose groups or by themselves. Flying together probably feels more sociable since they’re very slow fliers. Their normal migration speed is around 16-28 mph, but they will also fly at a very leisurely 5 mph. Humans can run faster than the woodcock’s top speed, let alone that slow-moving 5 mph.

Highest-flying: Birds migrating over the Himalayas

Two bar-headed geese flying together

Bar-headed gees make high-altitude migrations over the Himalayas. (Photo: /Wikimedia Commons)

While a 1974 report of a Rüppell’s griffon vulture colliding with an airplane at 37,000 feet (11,278 meters) makes this vulture the highest of fliers, this sort of cruising height doesn’t seem to occur often. More routinely, however, two birds make extreme height migrations: the bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) and the common crane (Grus grus).

The bar-headed goose is notable for its flying technique. Members of the species can reach up to 23,000 feet as they fly over the Himalayas. To reach these heights, the geese engage in a sort of roller-coaster approach to the flight, diving and rising to conserve energy. While this may seem counterintuitive, staying at extreme heights causes the birds’ heart rates to spike, and that uses more energy than hugging the ground and then climbing back up. Also, the geese never stop flapping, which adds to the energy they expend.

Gliding: Flying fish

A flying fish over the ocean

Flying fish glide more than they fly. (Photo: Daniel Huebner/Shutterstock)

Not all superlative fliers are of the avian persuasion. Enter the flying fish. These ray-finned fish don’t actually fly. They can’t propel themselves with their wings by flapping. Instead, they’re able to leap out of the water and glide on their fins, often for long distances. The National Wildlife Federation says the flying fish’s maximum distance is 650 feet. They do this to escape predators, but once they’re in the air, they’re easy pickings for birds, too. Win some, lose some.

Flying fish encompass over 60 different species, which means there could be a lot of fish jumping out of the ocean and soaring over the open seas.

Least likeliest to fly but still soar through the air: Snakes

A close-up of the head of the ornate flying snake

Flying snakes are members of the genus Chrysopelea. These slithery reptiles will move vertically up a tree until it reaches an end of a branch. Then it propels itself off the tree and into the air, slithering all the while.


These snakes soar by sucking in their abdomens and expanding their rib cages, and this combination creates a “pseudo concave wing” that allows them to soar, in some cases better than flying squirrels. The Department of Defense reportedly once looked into how these snakes operate to see what it could learn from the snake’s dynamics.