Why do some avian families contain so many more species than other families? We use comparisons between sister taxa to test predictions arising from six explanations to this puzzle: that differences between families are due to chance, body size, life history, sexual selection, intrinsic ecological factors or extrinsic abiotic factors, respectively. In agreement with previous analyses, we find no support for the idea that differences in species richness are simply due to chance. However, contrary to most previous work, we also find no support for the hypotheses that high species richness is correlated with small body size and fast life history. Rather, high species diversity is strongly associated with pronounced plumage dichromatism, generalist feeding habits and good dispersal capabilities as well as large and fragmented geographical ranges. In addition, all of these relationships are robust to the removal of the two most speciose avian lineages, the Ciconiiformes and the Passeriformes. The supposed relationships between species richness and both body size and life history are, however, due to phylogenetic non–independence. Together with previous work showing that differences between avian lineages in extinction risk are associated with variation in body size and life history, these results indicate that extinction rates and speciation rates are not necessarily determined by the same factors. Hence, high extinction rates are not inevitably associated with low speciation rates. Extinction–prone lineages may, in fact, have a high rate of speciation. In such lineages a high proportion of ‘vulnerable’species would be a natural, ongoing phenomenon.