The basal rate of metabolism (BMR) in 533 species of birds, when examined with ANCOVA, principally correlates with body mass, most of the residual variation correlating with food habits, climate, habitat, a volant or flightless condition, use or not of torpor, and a highland or lowland distribution. Avian BMR also correlates with migratory habits, if climate and a montane distribution is excluded from the analysis, and with an occurrence on small islands if a flightless condition and migration are excluded. Residual variation correlates with membership in avian orders and families principally because these groups are behaviorally and ecologically distinctive. However, the distinction between passerines and other birds remains a significant correlate of avian BMR, even after six ecological factors are included, with other birds having BMRs that averaged 74% of the passerine mean. This combination of factors accounts for 97.7% of the variation in avian BMR. Yet, migratory species that belong to Anseriformes, Charadriiformes, Pelecaniformes, and Procellariiformes and breed in temperate or polar environments have mass-independent basal rates equal to those found in passerines. In contrast, penguins belong to an order of polar, aquatic birds that have basal rates lower than passerines because their flightless condition depresses basal rate. Passerines dominate temperate, terrestrial environments and the four orders of aquatic birds dominate temperate and polar aquatic environments because their high BMRs facilitate reproduction and migration. The low BMRs of tropical passerines may reflect a sedentary lifestyle as much as a life in a tropical climate. Birds have BMRs that are 30-40% greater than mammals because of the commitment of birds to an expensive and expansive form of flight.