Although topographic complexity is often associated with high bird diversity at broad geographic scales, little is known about the relative contributions of geomorphologic heterogeneity and altitudinal climatic gradients found in mountains. We analysed the birds in the western mountains of the New World to examine the two-fold effect of topography on species richness patterns, using two grains at the intercontinental extent and within temperate and tropical latitudes. Birds were also classified as montane or lowland, based on their overall distributions in the hemisphere. We estimated range in temperature within each cell and the standard deviation in elevation (topographic roughness) based on all pixels within each cell. We used path analysis to test for the independent effects of topographic roughness and temperature range on species richness while controlling for the collinearity between topographic variables. At the intercontinental extent, actual evapotranspiration (AET) was the primary driver of species richness patterns of all species taken together and of lowland species considered separately. In contrast, within-cell temperature gradients strongly influenced the richness of montane species. Regional partitioning of the data also suggested that range in temperature either by itself or acting in combination with AET had the strongest “effect” on montane bird species richness everywhere. Topographic roughness had weaker “effects” on richness variation throughout, although its positive relationship with richness increased slightly in the tropics. We conclude that bird diversity gradients in mountains primarily reflect local climatic gradients. Widespread (lowland) species and narrow-ranged (montane) species respond similarly to changes in the environment, differing only in that the richness of lowland species correlates better with broad-scale climatic effects (AET), whereas mesoscale climatic variation accounts for richness patterns of montane species. Thus, latitudinal and altitudinal gradients in species richness can be explained through similar climatic-based processes, as has long been argued.