Aim Dispersal is often assumed to be a major force in shaping macroecological patterns, but this is rarely tested. Here I describe macroecological patterns for two groups of Lesser Antillean birds and then use population genetic data to assess if differences in dispersal ability could be responsible for the groups' contrasting patterns. Importantly, the population genetic data are derived independently from any data used to generate the macroecological patterns. Location The Lesser Antilles, Caribbean. Methods I used data from the literature to construct species-area curves and evaluate the decline in species compositional similarity with geographic distance (hereafter distance-decay) for two sets of bird communities in the Lesser Antilles, those found in rain forest and those in dry forest. I then used mitochondrial DNA sequences from island populations to assess the dispersal ability of rain forest and dry forest species. Results Rain forest species show steeper species-area curves and greater distance-decay in community similarity than dry forest species, patterns that could be explained by rain forest species having more limited dispersal ability. Both conventional analyses of M, the number of migrants per generation between populations, and alternative analyses of D-A, the genetic distance between populations, suggest that rain forest species disperse between islands less frequently than dry forest species. Main conclusions Differences in dispersal ability are a plausible explanation for the contrasting macroecological patterns of rain forest and dry forest species. Additionally, historical factors, such as the taxon cycle and Pleistocene climate fluctuations, may have played a role in shaping the distribution patterns of Lesser Antillean birds.