There is little understanding in ecology as to how biodiversity patterns emerge from the distribution patterns of individual species. Here we consider the question of the contributions of rare (restricted range) and common (widespread) species to richness patterns. Considering a species richness pattern, is most of the spatial structure, in terms of where the peaks and troughs of diversity lie, caused by the common species or the rare species (or neither)? Using southern African and British bird richness patterns, we show here that commoner species are most responsible for richness patterns. While rare and common species show markedly different species richness patterns, most spatial patterning in richness is caused by relatively few, more common, species. The level of redundancy we found suggests that a broad understanding of what determines the majority of spatial variation in biodiversity may be had by considering only a minority of species.