Non-avian dinosaurs are mostly medium to large-sized animals, and to date all known mature specimens are larger than the most primitive bird, Archaeopteryx. Here we report on a new dromaeosaurid dinosaur, Microraptor zhaoianus gen. et sp. nov., from the Early Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation of Liaoning, China. This is the first mature non-avian dinosaur to be found that is smaller than Archaeopteryx, and it eliminates the size disparity between the earliest birds and their closest non-avian theropod relatives. The more bird-like teeth, the Rahonavis -like ischium and the small number of caudal vertebrae of Microraptor are unique among dromaeosaurids and improve our understanding of the morphological transition to birds. The nearly completely articulated foot shows features, such as distally positioned digit I, slender and recurved pedal claws, and elongated penultimate phalanges, that are comparable to those of arboreal birds. The discovery of these in non-avian theropods provides new insights for studying the palaeoecology of some bird-like theropod dinosaurs.