Birds play an important role in studies addressing the diversity and species richness of tropical ecosystems, but because of the poor avian fossil record in all extant tropical regions, a temporal perspective is mainly provided by divergence dates derived from calibrated molecular analyses. Tropical ecosystems were, however, widespread in the Northern Hemisphere during the early Cenozoic, and the early Eocene German fossil site Messel in particular has yielded a rich avian fossil record. The Messel avifauna is characterized by a considerable number of flightless birds, as well as a high diversity of aerial insectivores and the absence of large arboreal birds. With about 70 currently known species in 42 named genus-level and at least 39 family-level taxa, it approaches extant tropical biotas in terms of species richness and taxonomic diversity. With regard to its taxonomic composition and presumed ecological characteristics, the Messel avifauna is more similar to the Neotropics, Madagascar, and New Guinea than to tropical forests in continental Africa and Asia. Because the former regions were geographically isolated during most of the Cenozoic, their characteristics may be due to the absence of biotic factors, especially those related to the diversification of placental mammals, which impacted tropical avifaunas in Africa and Asia. The crown groups of most avian taxa that already existed in early Eocene forests are species-poor. This does not support the hypothesis that the antiquity of tropical ecosystems is key to the diversity of tropical avifaunas, and suggests that high diversification rates may be of greater significance.