Environmental heterogeneity enhances species richness by creating niches and providing refugia. Spatial variation in climate has a particularly strong positive correlation with richness, but is often indirectly inferred from proxy variables, such as elevation and related topographic heterogeneity indices, or derived from interpolated coarsegrain weather station data. Our aim was to develop new remotely sensed metrics of relative temperature and thermal heterogeneity, compare them with proxy measures, and evaluate their performance in predicting species richness patterns. We analyzed Landsat 8’s Thermal Infrared Sensor data, calculated two thermal metrics during summer and winter, and compared their seasonal spatial patterns with those of elevation and topographic heterogeneity. We fit generalized least squares models to evaluate each variable’s effect in predicting seasonal bird richness using data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Generally speaking, neither elevation nor topographic heterogeneity were good proxies for temperature or thermal heterogeneity, respectively. Relative temperature had a non-linear relationship with elevation that was negatively quadratic in summer, but slightly positively quadratic in winter. Topographic heterogeneity had a stronger positive relationship with thermal heterogeneity in winter than in summer. The magnitude and direction of elevation–temperature and topographic heterogeneity–thermal heterogeneity relationships in each season also varied substantially across ecoregions. Remotely sensed metrics of relative temperature and thermal heterogeneity improved the predictive performance of species richness models, and both thermal variables had significant effects on bird richness that were independent of elevation and topographic heterogeneity. Thermal heterogeneity was positively related to total breeding bird richness, migrant breeding bird richness and resident bird richness, whereas topographic heterogeneity was negatively related to total breeding richness and unrelated to migrant or resident bird richness. Because thermal and topographic heterogeneity had contrasting seasonal patterns and effects on richness, they must be carefully contextualized when guiding conservation priorities.