The evolution of migration has long been considered complex and recent work has demonstrated additional complexity: some species follow the same ecological conditions throughout the year, whereas others ‘switch niches’ between breeding and wintering ranges. Hypotheses regarding the evolution of migration would generally predict niche–following as primitive, and niche–switching as derived. However, no test has, to our knowledge, yet determined the directionality of evolution of these states within a lineage. We present an analysis of phylogenetic dimensions of seasonal niches in the Passerina buntings that indicates greater evolutionary change in the niches of breeding populations than among those of wintering populations. These results are consistent with hypotheses of (i) niche conservatism (in winter, at least) across a recently speciated lineage; and (ii) the derived state of the breeding (rather than winter) ecological niches of each species.