Atmospheric conditions are critical for a range of biological functions—locomotion among others—and long-term changes in these conditions have been identified as causal for different macroevolutionary patterns. Here we examine the influence of variations in atmospheric O 2 concentration (AOC), temperature (T air ), and air density (ρ air ) on the power efficiency, as it relates to locomotion, during the evolutionary history of birds. Specifically, our study centers on four key evolutionary events: (1) the body mass reduction of non-avian theropods prior to the rise of birds; (2) the emergence of flapping flight in the earliest birds; (3) the divergence of basal pygostylians; and (4) the diversification of modern birds. Our results suggest that a marked increase in AOC and ρ air during the Middle Jurassic—coeval with a trend in miniaturization—improved the power efficiency of the dinosaurian predecessors of birds. Likewise, an increase in these conditions is hypothesized as having played a major role in the diversification of early pygostylians during the Early Cretaceous. However, our analyses do not identify any significant paleoatmospheric effects on either the emergence of flapping flight or the early cladogenesis of modern birds. Extinct birds flew within the range of atmospheric conditions in which modern birds fly but varying past conditions influenced their flight performance. Our study thus highlights the importance of considering paleoatmospheric conditions when reconstructing the flight efficiency of the forerunners of modern birds.