General criticisms of a single mtDNA gene barcodes include failure to identify newly evolved species, use of species-delimitation thresholds, effects of selective sweeps and chance occurrence of reciprocal monophyly within species, inability to deal with hybridization and incomplete lineage sorting, and superiority of multiple genes in species identification. We address these criticisms in birds because most species are known and thus provide an ideal test data set, and we argue with selected examples that with the exception of thresholds these criticisms are not problematic for avian taxonomy. Even closely related sister species of birds have distinctive COI barcodes, but it is not possible to universally apply distance thresholds based on ratios of within-species and among-species variation. Instead, more rigorous methods of species delimitation should be favoured using coalescent-based techniques that include tests of chance reciprocal monophyly, and times of lineage separation and sequence divergence. Incomplete lineage sorting is also easily detected with DNA barcodes, and usually at a younger time frame than a more slowly evolving nuclear gene. Where DNA barcodes detect divergent reciprocally monophyletic lineages, the COI sequences can be combined with multiple nuclear genes to distinguish between speciation or population subdivision arising from high female philopatry or regional selective sweeps. Although selective sweeps are increasingly invoked to explain patterns of shallow within-species coalescences in COI gene trees, caution is warranted in this conjecture because of limited sampling of individuals and the reduced power to detect additional mtDNA haplotypes with one gene.