We analyse patterns of genetic diversity and song complexity in the Palaearctic yellow wagtail (Motacilla flava), a highly polytypic species complex. Mitochondrial and nuclear DNA show that the complex is polyphyletic, despite parallel plumage variation in western and eastern clades. In the western clade there is genetic structure among southern subspecies, haplotype diversity decreases with latitude, and northern subspecies show evidence of bottlenecking and rapid expansions, as expected from isolation in glacial refugia followed by postglacial colonization. However, northern subspecies, which have more divergent male plumages, lack genetic structure and sing simpler songs. Loss of song complexity and evolution of plumage in founder populations are consistent with the Kaneshiro model, which posits that variation among species is a consequence of founder-induced shifts in female preference leading to loss of ancestral male sexual traits. Our results suggest possible postglacial founder-effect mechanisms for the morhological diversification of the yellow wagtail complex.