We compared historic and contemporary genetic variation in two threatened New Zealand birds (saddlebacks and robins) with disparate bottleneck histories. Saddlebacks showed massive loss of genetic variation when extirpated from the mainland, but no significant loss of variation following a severe bottleneck in the 1960s when the last population was reduced from ∼1000 to 36 birds. Low genetic variation was probably characteristic of this isolated island population: considerably more genetic variation would exist in saddlebacks today if a mainland population had survived. In contrast to saddlebacks, contemporary robin populations showed only a small decrease in genetic variation compared with historical populations. Genetic variation in robins was probably maintained because of their superior ability to disperse and coexist with introduced predators. These results demonstrate that contemporary genetic variation may depend more greatly on the nature of the source population and its genetic past than it does on recent bottlenecks.