The distribution of species richness in families of passerine birds suggests that the net rate of diversification was significantly higher than average in as many as 7 out of 47 families. However, the absence of excess species richness among the 106 tribes within these families indicates that these high rates were transient, perhaps associated in some cases with tectonic movements or dispersal events that extended geographical ranges. Thus, large clade size among passerine birds need not represent intrinsic key innovations that influence the rate of diversification. Approximately 17 families and 30 tribes have too few species relative to other passerine taxa. Many of these are ecologically or geographically marginal, being especially overrepresented in the Australasian region. Observed intervals between lineage splitting suggest that extinction has occurred ca. 90% as frequently as speciation (waiting times of 1.03 and 0.93 Myr) and that the 47 modern families comprising 5712 species descended from approximately 430 passerine lineages extant 24 Myr ago. Speciation and extinction rates among small, marginal families might be 1–2 orders of magnitude lower.