Islands offer an interesting framework in which to study the effect of geographical isolation on population genetic differentiation. For plant species with high dispersal abilities, however, oceanic barriers may not represent a factor promoting strong population structure. In this work, we analysed seven nuclear microsatellite loci in Ilex (Aquifoliaceae), a bird-dispersed plant group, to infer patterns of genetic differentiation among Macaronesian taxa: I. canariensis, I. perado ssp. lopezlilloi, I. perado ssp. platyphylla (Canary Islands) and I. perado ssp. azorica (Azores). In agreement with current taxonomic classification, our results revealed a high genetic differentiation between Ilex lineages (I. canariensis and the I. perado complex), and also supported previous hypotheses that these are the result of independent dispersal events to the islands. In contrast, genetic differentiation between I. perado ssp. azorica and the two subspecies from the Canaries was high, suggesting that taxonomic revision may be necessary. Levels of genetic variation at microsatellite loci in ssp. azorica were, in addition, the lowest reported among Macaronesian bird-dispersed taxa. Lastly, low genetic differentiation was observed between subspecies occurring on the same island (sspp. platyphylla and lopezlilloi). In summary, our results revealed contrasting patterns between Macaronesian Ilex lineages: I. canariensis displayed moderate population structure across islands, whereas the I. perado complex showed strong differentiation among populations sampled on different islands. Thus, the Macaronesian Ilex taxa show that long-distance dispersal syndromes (ornithochory) do not always ensure genetic connectivity across large areas in island systems. Plant groups that successfully colonized the islands on multiple occasions may have found barriers to gene flow within certain lineages. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 173, 258–268.