Geographic patterns in species richness are mainly based on wide-ranging species because their larger number of distribution records has a disproportionate contribution to the species richness counts. Here we demonstrate how this effect strongly influences our understanding of what determines species richness. Using both conventional and spatial regression models, we show that for sub-Saharan African birds, the apparent role of productivity diminishes with decreasing range size, whereas the significance of topographic heterogeneity increases. The relative importance of geometric constraints from the continental edge is moderate. Our findings highlight the failure of traditional species richness models to account for narrow-ranging species that frequently are also threatened.