Background: Passeriformes ("perching birds" or passerines) make up more than half of all extant bird species. The genome of the zebra finch, a passerine model organism for vocal learning, was noted previously to contain thousands of short interspersed elements (SINEs), a group of retroposons that is abundant in mammalian genomes but considered largely inactive in avian genomes. Results: Here we resolve the deep phylogenetic relationships of passerines using presence/absence patterns of SINEs. The resultant retroposon-based phylogeny provides a powerful and independent corroboration of previous sequence-based analyses. Notably, SINE activity began in the common ancestor of Eupasseres (passerines excluding the New Zealand wrens Acanthisittidae) and ceased before the rapid diversification of oscine passerines (suborder Passeri - songbirds). Furthermore, we find evidence for very recent SINE activity within suboscine passerines (suborder Tyranni), following the emergence of a SINE via acquisition of a different tRNA head as we suggest through template switching. Conclusions: We propose that the early evolution of passerines was unusual among birds in that it was accompanied by de-novo emergence and activity of SINEs. Their genomic and transcriptomic impact warrants further study in the light of the massive diversification of passerines.