Increasingly, patchy prescribed fire of low severity is used by land managers to mitigate wildfire risk, but there are relatively few experimental studies on the effects of low-severity fire on fauna. We used a before-after control-impact experiment to examine avian responses to prescribed fire at two scales in topographically variable, tall-open eucalypt forest in south-east Australia. We surveyed birds at control and impact areas twice before and twice after fire, and applied mixed models to investigate responses of avian turnover, richness and the occurrence of selected species. Approximately half of the impact area was burnt and topographic variation generated a finger-like configuration of burnt patches on ridges and unburnt patches in gullies. Our findings at the smaller scale (0.8 ha) indicated that the fire resulted in increased bird diversity because a patchwork of burnt and unburnt areas provided a mosaic of distinct successional states in which different species occurred. Additionally, we found that the effect of fire on species richness and occurrence was a function of the presence of unburnt topographic refuges. In contrast, we found no compelling evidence to suggest that birds responded to the fire at the larger scale (400 ha). We conclude that application of low-severity fire in a patchy manner enhanced avian diversity and facilitated the persistence of the birds detected in pre-fire surveys. Although the levels of patchiness required to sustain diverse taxa warrant further study, our findings highlight the importance of formally incorporating patchiness into prescribed burning for the ecologically sensitive management of contemporary landscapes.