We see birds flying in the sky every day but only when we visit a lake, river, or the ocean do we see them swimming. I watched two ducks the other day racing across my local lake, and I remembered some research I had seen a while ago about the fastest swimming birds.
While it is impossible to measure the exact speed of various birds while swimming, the rates noted are over short areas and the maximum that has been recorded.
Penguin – 36 km/h
Length: 70 – 95 cm
Weight: 4.5 – 8.5 kg
Wingspan: 22.2 – 25.6 cm
The Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) is the world’s fastest swimming bird. It can swim up to an impressive 36 km/h. This was just under Usain Bolt’s average speed when he broke the world record for the fastest 100m at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The Gentoo penguin is found on the sub-Antarctic Islands and the Antarctic, with the biggest populations residing in the Falkland Islands and the Antarctic peninsula.
They are the third-largest penguin behind emperor penguins and king penguins. They are black all over, except for their white stomachs and a white stripe behind their eye. They have an orange bill and a very prominent, feathered tail.
Gentoo penguins are highly streamlined with oiled feathers and strong flippers shaped like paddles. They must be well-adapted to swimming as they dive for food up to 450 times a day and live on crustaceans, small fish and squid diet.
When they reach 2 to 4 years of age, Gentoo penguins begin to breed, building nests on beaches or in tussocks. Clutch size is usually two, and incubation is 34 – 37 days. Their surrounding environment poses multiple challenges to them, such as limits on food and predation by larger animals such as leopard seals, sea lions, and orcas. On top of this, they have the growing pressure of melting ice due to climate change.
Swan – 17 km/h
Length: 140 – 160 cm
Weight: 10 – 12 kg
Wingspan: 208 – 238 cm
Belonging to the genus Cygnus, the swan is one of the largest and fastest swimming birds living on all continents apart from Africa and Antarctica. They are a migratory species and can swim up to 17 km/h and live to around 30 years old.
Swans are graceful, enchanting creatures with long, gently curved necks and large webbed feet. Their feathers mainly come in three different colours: white, black, and pink, whilst their beaks can be black, yellow or patterned with red.
Swans are migratory birds, who fly in groups in ‘V-shaped’ formations, and individuals take turns in leading the flock. They feed on animals, including fish, prawns, and plants. They are usually monogamous, meaning they mate for life, but swan ‘divorces’ have been shown to occur.
Swans breed in freshwater ponds, lakes, marshes and rivers and build nests on sites built slightly above water, such as small islands or vegetation. The male and female will work together to build their nest before five eggs are laid in a clutch.
Baby swans, called cygnets, are heavy, weighing around 200 – 250 grams as soon as they hatch and can swim almost immediately, but are vehemently cared for by their mother in their first few ‘trial-swims’.
Gull – 14 km/h
Length: 64 – 79 cm
Weight: 1.8 kg
Wingspan: 150 – 170 cm
Great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus) are the largest gull species and are found along the Atlantic coast and on the Great Lakes of North America. They are the fourth-fastest swimming bird. They are large seabirds and cheeky opportunists – if you’ve visited the coast, then I’m sure you’ll agree.
They will steal fish and bait from boats, rubbish from bins, other birds’ findings and even prey on birds smaller than them. They are omnivorous, with a diet consisting of fish, mussels, crabs, sea urchins and other marine invertebrates.
Their feathers are white, grey and black, their legs are pink, and they have powerful beaks, stout bodies, thick necks and broad wings. Breeding adults have a red mark on the lower beak and a red ring around their eyes. Juvenile great black-backed gulls have more brown and grey checkered feathers that gradually transform into adults’ stark black and white colours over the first four years.
Baby black-backed gulls will stay in the nest, then learn to fly at around seven weeks old, and finally leave the breeding colony some months later. To prepare nests, the male and female will both dig scrapes and fill them with materials such as vegetation, feathers, and rope. The female then selects one of these sites to lay her eggs. Their clutch sizes are 2 or 3 eggs, with an incubation period of approximately one month.
Duck – 10 km/h
Length: 50 – 65 cm
Weight: 0.72 – 1.6 kg
Wingspan: 81 – 98 cm
The Anatidae family are the third-fastest group of swimming birds, reaching speeds of up to 10 km/h. They are found all over the world except for Antarctica and live in both fresh and seawater. There are 162 species of duck within the group, and on average can live up to 20 years.
They are social animals, usually staying within groups. Ducks are monogamous for a single breeding season but usually switch partners once a new season begins.
Ducks nest near the water, with females usually disguising their nests in vegetation or holes in trees. Baby ducks are very adapted to their watery conditions as soon as they hatch and will be able to fly by just two months old. They’re omnivorous, meaning they eat a mixture of animals and plants such as grass, aquatic plants, seeds, insects, fish and crustaceans.
Their feathers are extremely waterproof so that even when they dive, their skin and downy underlayer of feathers will stay completely dry. Preening is how ducks groom themselves and maintain this waterproof layer by releasing a waxy oil from their uropygial gland.
Their webbed feet enable them to swim well and stand on the uneven, muddy ground. Interestingly, these webbed feet have no nerves or blood vessels, meaning they don’t register cold temperatures.
Pelicans – 10 km/h
Length: 160 -190 cm
Weight: 6.1 kg
Wingspan: 180 – 350 cm
There are eight species belonging to the Pelecanus family. They’re found by lakes, rivers and coasts on every continent apart from Antarctica. Pelicans are carnivorous and feed on fish they catch using their elastic throat pouch.
They can reach swimming speeds of up to 10 km/h and are highly adapted hunters. Some plunge-dive for their food from incredible heights. Impressively, the brown pelican’s beady eye can notice fish under the water whilst they’re flying 60 feet above the surface.
Others scoop up their prey when standing in shallow water and sometimes work in groups. They’ll work together in a U-shaped formation to coerce fish into shallow water so they can scoop them up quickly. They soar in impressive migratory flocks in long lines across the sky.
They often live and breed in colonies, often on islands. They lay 1 to 4 blue-white eggs and the incubation period is about one month. Parents care for the young by regurgitating food; the juvenile period lasts up to four years.