West Nile virus (WNV) is a zoonotic arthropod-borne pathogen with continued geographical expansion in Europe. We present and evaluate data on the temporal, spatial and bird species focus of the WNV surveillance programme in dead wild birds in Great Britain (2002–2009). During this period all bird samples tested negative for WNV. Eighty-two per cent of the 2072 submissions occurred during the peak period of vector activity with 53% tested during April–July before human and equine infection would be expected. Samples were received from every county, but there was significant geographical clustering (nearest neighbour index=0·23, P<0·001). Over 240 species were represented, with surveillance more likely to detect WNV in resident bird species (92% of submissions) than migrants (8%). Evidence indicates that widespread avian mortality is not generally a reported feature of WNV in Europe and hence additional activities other than dead bird surveillance may maximize the ability to detect WNV circulation before the onset of human and equine infections.