In approximately 3.2% of bird species individuals regularly forgo the opportunity to breed independently and instead breed cooperatively with other conspecifics, either as non–reproductive ‘helpers’ or as co–breeders. The traditional explanation for cooperative breeding is that the opportunities for breeding independently are limited owing to peculiar features of the specie's breeding ecology. However, it has proved remarkably difficult to find any common ecological correlates of cooperative breeding in birds. This difficulty has led to the ‘life history hypothesis’, which suggests that the common feature of cooperatively breeding birds is their great longevity, rather than any particular feature of their breeding ecology. Here, we use a comparative method to test the life history hypothesis by looking for correlations between life history variation and variation in the frequency of cooperative breeding. First, we find that cooperative breeding in birds is not randomly distributed, but concentrated in certain families, thus supporting the idea that there may be a common basis to cooperative breeding in birds. Second, increases in the level of cooperative breeding are strongly associated with decreases in annual adult mortality and modal clutch size. Third, the proportion of cooperatively breeding species per family is correlated with a low family–typical value of annual mortality, suggesting that low mortality predisposes cooperative breeding rather than vice versa. Finally, the low rate of mortality typically found in cooperatively breeding species is associated with increasing sedentariness, lower latitudes, and decreased environmental fluctuation. We suggest that low annual mortality is the key factor that predisposes avian lineages to cooperative breeding, then ecological changes, such as becoming sedentary, further slow population turnover and reduce opportunities for independent breeding. As the traditional explanation suggests, the breeding habitat of cooperatively breeding species is saturated, but this saturation is not owing to any peculiar feature of the breeding ecology of cooperative breeders. Rather, the saturation arises because the local population turnover in these species is unusually slow, as predicted by the life history hypothesis.