We studied polymorphism in all species of birds that are presently known to show intraspecific variation in plumage colour. At least three main mechanisms have been put forward to explain the maintenance of polymorphism: apostatic, disruptive and sexual selection. All of them make partly different predictions. Our aims were to investigate evolutionary causes and adaptive functions of colour polymorphism by taking into account a number of ecological and morphological features of polymorphic species. Overall, we found 334 species showing colour polymorphism, which is 3.5% of all bird species. The occurrence of colour polymorphism was very high in Strigiformes, Ciconiiformes, Cuculiformes and Galliformes. Phylogenetically corrected analysis using independent contrasts revealed that colour polymorphism was maximally expressed in species showing a daily activity rhythm extended to day/night, living in both open and closed habitats. All these findings support the hypothesis that colour polymorphism probably evolved under selective pressures linked to bird detectability as affected by variable light conditions during activity period. Thus, we conclude that selective agents may be prey, predators and competitors, and that colour polymorphism in birds may be maintained by disruptive selection.