The study of avian migration has reached sophisticated levels in many areas, including ecology, behaviour, and physiology. Traditional discussions of the evolution of migration, however, have been compromised for several reasons. Previous ideas concerning the ancestral home of migrant species, southern or northern, and whether a partially migratory stage always precedes a fully migratory stage, were not expressed as testable hypotheses. Plotting migratory behaviour on phylogenetic trees has become commonplace and allows tests of traditional hypotheses. Some of these studies are reviewed, lending some support for almost all of the previous ideas. Although phylogenetic mapping helps to frame questions about the evolution of migration in a testable framework, there are two serious issues. First, experimental and observational studies reveal that the expression of migratory behaviour can change rapidly within a lineage, which can violate assumptions of character mapping. In addition, a species distribution model is used to show that current conditions for obligate migratory populations of the chipping sparrow were much restricted at the Last Glacial Maximum, and that the species might have been considered a partial migrant at that time. The expression of migratory behaviour in an extant species might be an artefact of the current inter-glacial period. Only if the rate of gains and losses of migratory behaviour can be incorporated into a phylogenetic mapping exercise will the actual evolutionary pattern of migration be revealed. For example, reconstruction of the ancestral area and the evolutionary history of migratory categories in a clade of New World warblers depended on the assumptions of character state transitions. A second concern is that the trait ‘migratory’ is too broad for evolutionary analysis and that, if possible, the expression of hyperphagia, Zugunruhe, and navigation could be mapped individually. Loss or suppression of any of these components can lead to sedentary populations, revealing how migratory behaviour can appear and disappear rapidly. A report of low levels of Zugunruhe in a sedentary bird, Saxicola torquata, is reconstructed as derived in a clade of otherwise migratory populations, suggesting that the loss of migration was a result of suppression (but not elimination) of Zugunruhe. When researchers mention the independent origin of migration in a clade, they are most likely referring to the gain or loss of the expression of the ancestral migratory programme, not the de novo evolution of migration per se. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2011, 104, 237–250.