Given the increasing rapprochement between aviculture and conservation organizations and the escalating global crisis in species conservation, we enumerate the avian taxa that are subject to, or might most appropriately be considered for, conservation-breeding programmes. Although the overall total, at 257, is only 2·6% of the extant global avifauna, the role for zoos remains crucial. Of this total, captive breeding is judged ‘Necessary’ or ‘Integral’ to conservation efforts for 45 spp (18%); for the great majority, it is regarded as ‘Precautionary’ or ‘Prudent’ [192 spp (75%)], and for the remainder it is recommended either as a showcase for in situ efforts [3 spp (1%) – although this proportion could be larger] or to deflect pressure from wild populations by the market-driven supply of captive-bred individuals [17 spp (7%)]. For the 8–21% of these species for which captive populations may not already exist, more detailed assessment is required prior to attempting to establish ex situ populations. Avicultural institutions preparing to rise to these challenges should recognize that: (1) the taking of birds into captivity should not provide an excuse to developers to continue unchecked with whatever activity threatens the species in question; (2) species recovery programmes driven primarily by conservation-breeding interests may need a more holistic agenda that develops the in situ component; (3) success has so far been elusive in several ‘Necessary’ cases (in which failure would lead almost certainly to extinction); (4) a delicate balance is needed between leaving ex situ management too late and starting it too early; (5) choice of species will depend not only on biological need but also on factors relating to the individual institution; (6) our recommendations are simply to consider conservation breeding for the species listed here that are not already in programmes; (7) speed of reaction is of the essence once the decision is clear; (8) new priorities will constantly arise, in some cases deriving from taxonomic revisions.