The woodpecker genus Veniliornis comprises 12 species, all restricted to the New World tropics. The seemingly distantly related genus Picoides is broadly distributed in Eurasia and North America with two putative species, P. lignarius and P. mixtus, occurring in South America. The two genera are clearly distinct with respect to general plumage colouration and patterning as well as habitat utilization and thus traditionally have been placed in different tribes. Phylogenetic analyses of mtDNA sequences from the COI and cyt b genes indicated that both genera are reciprocally paraphyletic. The two South American species of Picoides belong to a clade comprising most species of Veniliornis, but V. fumigatus of Central and north-western South America belongs to a clade comprising species of Picoides. The mtDNA tree also indicated that Veniliornis is not closely related to the genus Piculus, as is implicit in current classifications. Misclassifications involving Veniliornis at both the generic and tribal levels appear to result from convergent evolution of plumage traits in specific forest types. We infer that the common ancestor of Veniliornis entered South America approximately at the time the Isthmus of Panama was formed, and diversification within South America was rapid. © 2006 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2006, 87, 611–624.