The evolution of animal communication is a complex issue and one that attracts much research and debate. ‘Receiver psychology’ has been highlighted as a potential selective force, and we review how avian psychological processes and biases can influence the evolution and design of signals as well as the progress that has been made in testing these ideas in behavioural studies. Interestingly, although birds are a focal group for experimental psychologists and behavioural ecologists alike, the integration of theoretical ideas from psychology into studies of communication has been relatively slow. However, recent operant experiments are starting to address how birds perceive and respond to complex natural signals in an attempt to answer evolutionary problems in communication. This review outlines how a psychological approach to understanding communication is useful, and we hope that it stimulates further research addressing the role of psychological mechanisms in signal evolution.