Small patches of natural or semi-natural habitat have an important role in the conservation of biodiversity in human-dominated environments. The values of such areas are determined by attributes of the patch as well as its context in the surrounding land mosaic. There is a need for better understanding of the ways in which assemblages are influenced by patch context and the scale over which this occurs. Here we examine the influence of regional environmental gradients on the richness, annual turnover and composition of breeding bird species in small woods in south-eastern England. Regional gradients were defined independently of woods by an ordination of attributes for 5 km × 5 km landscape units across a 2100 km2 region. Patch-level attributes, particularly area, were the most important predictors for most bird variables. For woodland migrants and woodland-dependent species, variables representing the context of each wood, either at a local or regional scale, explained significant additional variance in species richness after accounting for wood area, but did not do so for species turnover. Significant context effects for woodland-dependent species related to the extent of hedges and woodland cover in the local vicinity (<1 km radius), whereas for woodland seasonal migrants the best predictors of richness after patch area were two regional environmental gradients. The initial cue to settlement for migrants may be at a coarse regional scale, with selection for suitable landscapes that have a greater extent of woodland cover. Edge species showed different responses: they were influenced by the diversity of structural features in woods, and were a more-dominant component of the avifauna in isolated woods in open fenland environments of the region. Significant relationships between coarse regional gradients (25 km2 units) and bird assemblages in small woods (0.5–30 ha) suggest that population and community processes in the avifauna operate across a broader scale than local patch neighbourhoods. They also highlight the importance of adopting a landscape or regional perspective on potential changes to land-use in rural environments, and on the conservation management of small reserves.