1. We tested the species diversity–energy hypothesis using the British bird fauna. This predicts that temperature patterns should match diversity patterns. We also tested the hypothesis that the mechanism operates directly through effects of temperature on thermoregulatory loads; this further predicts that seasonal changes in temperature cause matching changes in patterns of diversity, and that species’ body mass is influential.
2. We defined four assemblages using migration status (residents or visitors) and season (summer or winter distribution). Records of species’ presence/absence in a total of 2362, 10 × 10-km, quadrats covering most of Britain were used, together with a wide selection of habitat, topographic and seasonal climatic data.
3. We fitted a logistic regression model to each species’ distribution using the environmental data. We then combined these individual species models mathematically to form a diversity model. Analysis of this composite model revealed that summer temperature was the factor most strongly associated with diversity.
4. Although the species–energy hypothesis was supported, the direct mechanism, predicting an important role for body mass and matching seasonal patterns of change between diversity and temperature, was not supported.
5. However, summer temperature is the best overall explanation for bird diversity patterns in Britain. It is a better predictor of winter diversity than winter temperature. Winter diversity is predicted more precisely from environmental factors than summer diversity.
6. Climate change is likely to influence the diversity of different areas to different extents; for resident species, low diversity areas may respond more strongly as climate change progresses. For winter visitors, higher diversity areas may respond more strongly, while summer visitors are approximately neutral.