Quantifying species distributions using species distribution models (SDMs) has emerged as a central method in modern biogeography. These empirical models link species occurrence data with spatial environmental information. Since their emergence in the 1990s, thousands of scientific papers have used SDMs to study organisms across the entire tree of life, with birds commanding considerable attention. Here, we review the current state of avian SDMs and point to challenges and future opportunities for specific applications, ranging from conservation biology, invasive species and predicting seabird distributions, to more general topics such as modeling avian diversity, niche evolution and seasonal distributions at a biogeographic scale. While SDMs have been criticized for being phenomenological in nature, and for their inability to explicitly account for a variety of processes affecting populations, we conclude that they remain a powerful tool to learn about past, current, and future species distributions – at least when their limitations and assumptions are recognized and addressed. We close our review by providing an outlook on prospects and synergies with other disciplines in which avian SDMs can play an important role.