Multivariate patterns of morphological variation in birds are analysed. In general, there are strong allometric patterns among characters such that most of the variation is confined to a major “size” axis. To analyse the possible evolutionary processes behind this pattern I employed a computer simulation of cladogenesis and anagenesis based on a genetic and a random walk model (drift). All runs started with one species and speciation occurred to generate 100 species. Three levels of correlations were allowed. The results from the simulations were compared with the pattern of variation in finches (Fringillidae).
The simulations showed two things. First, the univariate drift model was inappropriate in terms of the level of variation; the observed level was lower than expected by drift. Univariate drift was also unable to create tight correlations among characters as observed in several taxa. Second, to create the pattern observed, either relatively strong genetic correlations (rg ≈ 0.5), or alternatively strong correlated selection, was needed. This suggests that morphological change in birds in general consists of changes in growth such that species become larger or smaller than their ancestors but retain their ancestral shape. The results stress the importance of stabilising selection in shaping the macroevolutionary patterns of morphological variation in birds.