Shared behavioural, morphological and physiological characteristics are indicative of the evolution of extant birds from nonavian maniraptoran dinosaurs. One such shared character is the presence of uncinate processes and respiratory structures in extant birds. Recent research has suggested a respiratory role for these processes found in oviraptorid and dromaeosaurid dinosaurs. By measuring the geometry of fossil rib cage morphology, we demonstrate that the mechanical advantage, conferred by uncinate processes, for movements of the ribs in the oviraptorid theropod dinosaur, Citipati osmolskae, basal avialan species Zhongjianornis yangi, Confuciusornis sanctus and the more derived ornithurine Yixianornis grabaui, is of the same magnitude as found in extant birds. These skeletal characteristics provide further evidence of a flow-through respiratory system in nonavian theropod dinosaurs and basal avialans, and indicate that uncinate processes are a key adaptation facilitating the ventilation of a lung air sac system that diverged earlier than extant birds. © 2012 The Authors. Journal of Evolutionary Biology © 2012 European Society For Evolutionary Biology.