We investigated the relationship between wing element proportions and flight mode in a dataset of living avian species to provide a framework for making basic estimates of the range of flight styles evolved by Mesozoic birds. Our results show that feather length (fprim) and total arm length (ta) (sum of the humerus, ulna and manus length) ratios differ significantly between four flight style groups defined and widely used for living birds and as a result are predictive for fossils. This was confirmed using multivariate ordination analyses, with four wing elements (humerus, ulna/radius, manus, primary feathers), that discriminate the four broad flight styles within living birds. Among the variables tested, manus length is closely correlated with wing size, yet is the poorest predictor for flight style, suggesting that the shape of the bones in the hand wing is most important in determining flight style. Wing bone thickness (shape) must vary with wing beat strength, with weaker forces requiring less bone. Finally, we show that by incorporating data from Mesozoic birds, multivariate ordination analyses can be used to predict the flight styles of fossils.