Pleistocene biogeographic events have traditionally been ascribed a major role in promoting speciations and in sculpting the present–day diversity and distributions of vertebrate taxa. However, this paradigm has recently come under challenge from a review of interspecific mtDNA genetic distances in birds: most sister–species separations dated to the Pliocene. Here we summarize the literature on intraspecific mtDNA phylogeographic patterns in birds and reinterpret the molecular evidence bearing on Pleistocene influences. At least 37 out of 63 avian species surveyed (59%) are sundered into recognizable phylogeographic units, and 28 of these separations (76%) trace to the Pleistocene. Furthermore, use of phylogroup separation times within species as minimum estimates of ‘speciation durations’ also indicates that many protracted speciations, considered individually, probably extended through time from Pliocene origins to Pleistocene completions. When avian speciation is viewed properly as an extended temporal process rather than as a point event, Pleistocene conditions appear to have played an active role both in initiating major phylogeographic separations within species, and in completing speciations that had been inaugurated earlier. Whether the Pleistocene was exceptional in these regards compared with other geological times remains to be determined.