An organism’s ability to disperse influences many fundamental processes, from speciation and geographical range expansion to community assembly. However, the patterns and underlying drivers of variation in dispersal across species remain unclear, partly because standardised estimates of dispersal ability are rarely available. Here we present a global dataset of avian hand-wing index (HWI), an estimate of wing shape widely adopted as a proxy for dispersal ability in birds. We show that HWI is correlated with geography and ecology across 10,338 (>99%) species, increasing at higher latitudes and with migration, and decreasing with territoriality. After controlling for these effects, the strongest predictor of HWI is temperature variability (seasonality), with secondary effects of diet and habitat type. Finally, we also show that HWI is a strong predictor of geographical range size. Our analyses reveal a prominent latitudinal gradient in HWI shaped by a combination of environmental and behavioural factors, and also provide a global index of avian dispersal ability for use in community ecology, macroecology, and macroevolution.