Substantial differences in pelvic osteology and soft tissues separate crown group crocodylians (Crocodylia) and birds (Neornithes). A phylogenetic perspective including fossils reveals that these disparities arose in a stepwise pattern along the line to extant birds, with major changes occurring both within and outside Aves. Some character states that preceded the origin of Neornithes are only observable or inferable in extinct taxa. These transitional states are important for recognizing the derived traits of neornithines. Palaeontological and neontological data are vital for reconstructing the sequence of pelvic changes along the line to Neornithes. Soft tissue correlation with osteological structures allows changes in soft tissue anatomy to be traced along a phylogenetic framework, and adds anatomical significance to systematic characters from osteology. Explicitly addressing homologies of bone surfaces reveals many subtleties in pelvic evolution that were previously unrecognized or implicit. I advocate that many anatomical features often treated as independent characters should be interpreted as different character states of the same character. Relatively few pelvic character states are unique to Neornithes. Indeed, many features evolved quite early along the line to Neornithes, blurring the distinction between ‘avian’ and ‘non-avian’ anatomy.