The Mesozoic fossil record has proved critical for understanding the early evolution and subsequent radiation of birds. Little is known, however, about its relative completeness: just how ‘good’ is the fossil record of birds from the Mesozoic? This question has come to prominence recently in the debate over differences in estimated dates of origin of major clades of birds from molecular and palaeontological data. Using a dataset comprising all known fossil taxa, we present analyses that go some way towards answering this question. Whereas avian diversity remains poorly represented in the Mesozoic, many relatively complete bird specimens have been discovered. New taxa have been added to the phylogenetic tree of basal birds, but its overall shape remains constant, suggesting that the broad outlines of early avian evolution are consistently represented: no stage in the Mesozoic is characterized by an overabundance of scrappy fossils compared with more complete specimens. Examples of Neornithes (modern orders) are known from later stages in the Cretaceous, but their fossils are rarer and scrappier than those of basal bird groups, which we suggest is a biological, rather than a geological, signal.