This literature review provides an overview of use of environmental samples (ES) such as faeces, water, air, mud and swabs of surfaces in avian influenza (AI) surveillance programs, focussing on effectiveness, advantages and gaps in knowledge. ES have been used effectively for AI surveillance since the 1970s. Results from ES have enhanced understanding of the biology of AI viruses in wild birds and in markets, of links between human and avian influenza, provided early warning of viral incursions, allowed assessment of effectiveness of control and preventive measures, and assisted epidemiological studies in outbreaks, both avian and human. Variation exists in the methods and protocols used, and no internationally recognized guidelines exist on the use of ES and data management. Few studies have performed direct comparisons of ES versus live bird samples (LBS). Results reported so far demonstrate reliance on ES will not be sufficient to detect virus in all cases when it is present, especially when the prevalence of infection/contamination is low. Multiple sample types should be collected. In live bird markets, ES from processing/selling areas are more likely to test positive than samples from bird holding areas. When compared to LBS, ES is considered a cost-effective, simple, rapid, flexible, convenient and acceptable way of achieving surveillance objectives. As a non-invasive technique, it can minimize effects on animal welfare and trade in markets and reduce impacts on wild bird communities. Some limitations of environmental sampling methods have been identified, such as the loss of species-specific or information on the source of virus, and taxonomic-level analyses, unless additional methods are applied. Some studies employing ES have not provided detailed methods. In others, where ES and LBS are collected from the same site, positive results have not been assigned to specific sample types. These gaps should be remedied in future studies.© 2020 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Transboundary and Emerging Diseases published by Blackwell Verlag GmbH.