A species’ susceptibility to environmental change might be predicted by its ecological and life-history traits. However, the effects of such traits on long-term bird population trends have not yet been assessed using a comprehensive set of explanatory variables. Moreover, the extent to which phylogeny affects patterns in the interspecific variability of population changes is unclear. Our study focuses on the interspecific variability in long-term population trends and annual population fluctuations of 68 passerine species in the Czech Republic, assessing the effects of eight life-history and five ecological traits. Ordination of life-history traits of 68 species revealed a life-history gradient, from ‘r-selected’ (e.g. small body mass, short lifespan, high fecundity, large clutch size) to ‘K-selected’ species. r-selected species had more negative population trends than K-selected species, and seed-eaters declined compared with insectivores. We suggest that the r-selected species probably suffer from widespread environmental changes, and the seed-eaters from current changes in agriculture and land use. Populations of residents fluctuated more than populations of short-distance migrants, probably due to the effect of winter climatic variability. Variance partitioning at three taxonomic levels showed that whereas population trends, population fluctuations and habitat specialization expressed the highest variability at the species level, most life-history traits were more variable at higher taxonomic levels. These results explain the loss of statistical power in the relationship between life histories and population trends after controlling for phylogeny. However, we argue that a lack of significance after controlling for phylogeny should not reduce the value of such results for conservation purposes.