Environmental factors controlling the distribution and abundance of boreal avifauna are not fully understood, limiting our ability to predict the consequences of a changing climate and industrial development activities underway. We used a compilation of avian point-count data, collected over 1990–2008 from nearly 36 000 locations, to model the abundance of individual forest songbird species within the Canadian boreal forest. We evaluated 30 vegetation and 101 climatic variables, representing most of the widely-used dimensions of climate space, along with less usual measures of inter-annual variability. Regression tree models allowed us to calculate the relative importance of climate and vegetation variable classes according to avian migration strategy without the need for a priori variable selection or dimension reduction. We tested for hierarchical habitat selection by formulating hypotheses on the locations of variables within the model tree structures. Climate variables explained the majority (77%) of deviance explained over 98 species modelled. As may be expected at high latitudes, we found energy availability (temperature, 65%) to be more important than moisture availability (precipitation, 12%). The contributions of inter- and intra-annual climate variability (28%) were about half that of mean conditions. The relatively large contribution of remotely-sensed vegetation metrics (23%) highlighted the importance of local vegetation heterogeneity controlled by non-climatic factors. The two most important vegetation variables were landcover type and April leaf area index. When selected, these generally occurred in a model's right subtree, consistent with predictions from hierarchical habitat selection theory. When occupying the root node, landcover effectively delineated the historical forest-prairie ecotone, reflecting the current disequilibrium between climate and vegetation due to human land use. Our findings suggest a large potential for avian distributional shifts in response to climate change, but also demonstrate the importance of finer scale vegetation heterogeneity in the spatial distribution of boreal birds.