• body size;
  • comparative analyses;
  • dispersal distances;
  • phylogeny;
  • ring recoveries

1.  Dispersal is of critical ecological and evolutionary importance for several issues of population biology, particularly population synchrony, colonization and range expansion, metapopulation and source–sink dynamics, and population genetic structure, but it has not previously been possible to compare dispersal patterns across a wide range of species or to study movement outside the confines of local study areas.

2.  Using resampling methods, we verified that statistically unbiased estimates of average dispersal distance and of intraspecific variance in dispersal distance could be extracted from the bird ringing data of the British Trust for Ornithology.

3.  Using data on 75 terrestrial bird species, we tested whether natal and breeding dispersal were influenced by a species’ habitat requirements, diet, geographical range, abundance, morphology, social system, life history or migratory status. We used allometric techniques to ascertain whether these relationships were independent of body size, and used the method of phylogenetically independent contrasts to ascertain whether they were independent of phylogeny.

4.  Both natal and breeding dispersal distances were lower among abundant species and among species with large geographical ranges. Dispersal distances and life-history variables were correlated independent of phylogeny, but these relationships did not persist after controlling for body size. All morphometrical variables (wing length, tarsus length and bill length) were not significantly correlated with dispersal distances after correcting for body size or phylogenetic relatedness.

5.  Migrant species disperse further than resident ones, this relation was independent of body size but not of phylogeny. A significant positive relation was observed between breeding dispersal distance and long-term population decline among migrants, but not among residents.

6.  The species living in wet habitats disperse further than those living in dry habitats, which could be explained by the greater patchiness of wet habitats in space and/or time. This relationship was observed only for breeding dispersal, suggesting that this habitat variable does not impose the same constraint on natal dispersal.