Many shorebirds that breed in North America are declining. These trends reflect global patterns in shorebird populations. Here we ask what factors make some shorebird species more prone to decline than others. Specifically, we test the influence of migratory behaviour (route and distance), biogeography (population size and range), life history (body size, clutch size) and sexual selection (social mating system and testis size) on population trends in North American breeding shorebirds. Using phylogenetic comparative methods, we show that species that migrate across continental North America are more prone to decline than species that do not. Our finding that continental migrants are associated with population decline indicates that intrinsic factors may play an important role in predisposing a species to decline. Previous studies within the class Aves have failed to identify migration route as a correlate of decline or extinction risk. Two other intrinsic factors (oceanic migrants and threats on the non-breeding grounds) were also important in our overall models, although neither was significant alone. The moderate explanatory power of our variables indicates that other factors are also important for explaining shorebird declines. We suggest that contemporary threats, most notably habitat loss and degradation at migratory stopover sites, are likely to be important.