Comparative analyses of avian energetics often involve the implicit assumption that basal metabolic rate (BMR) is a fixed, taxon-specific trait. However, in most species that have been investigated, BMR exhibits phenotypic flexibility and can be reversibly adjusted over short time scales. Many non-migrants adjust BMR seasonally, with the winter BMR usually higher than the summer BMR. The data that are currently available do not, however, support the idea that the magnitude and direction of these adjustments varies consistently with body mass. Long-distance migrants often exhibit large intra-annual changes in BMR, reflecting the physiological adjustments associated with different stages of their migratory cycles. Phenotypic flexibility in BMR also represents an important component of short-term thermal acclimation under laboratory conditions, with captive birds increasing BMR when acclimated to low air temperatures and vice versa. The emerging view of avian BMR is of a highly flexible physiological trait that is continually adjusted in response to environmental factors such as temperature. The within-individual variation observed in avian BMR demands a critical re-examination of approaches used for comparisons across taxa. Several key questions concerning the shapes and other properties of avian BMR reaction norms urgently need to be addressed, and hypotheses concerning metabolic adaptation should explicitly account for phenotypic flexibility.