Molecular techniques have revealed striking variation among bird species in the rates of extra–pair paternity (EPP) and intraspecific brood parasitism (IBP). In terms of the proportion of broods affected, rates of EPP and IBP vary across species from 0–95% and 0–50%, respectively. Despite a plethora of hypotheses and several careful comparative analyses, few robust correlates of this interspecific variation have been identified. One explanation for this shortfall is that most comparative studies have tended to focus on contemporary ecological factors and ignored fundamental differences in reproductive biology that evolved millions of years ago. We show that, for both EPP and IBP, over 50% of interspecific variation is due to differences among taxonomic families and orders. Therefore, we test hypotheses that predict interspecific variation in the rate of alternative reproductive strategies should be associated with differences in life history and the form of parental care. Our analyses largely support these predictions, with high rates of reproductive cheating being associated with ‘fast’ life histories. High EPP rates are associated with high rates of adult mortality and reduced paternal care. High IBP rates are associated with high–fecundity rates. These patterns remain intact whether we use species as independent data points or evolutionary contrasts based on either molecular or morphological phylogenies. These results are interpreted as supporting the idea that alternative reproductive strategies are most common in taxa in which the risks of retaliation are low. We suggest a hierarchical explanation for interspecific variation in the incidence of alternative reproductive strategies. Variation between major avian lineages in the EPP and IBP rates are determined by fundamental differences in life history and parental care that evolved many millions of years ago. Variation between populations or individuals of the same species, however, are more likely to be determined by differences in contemporary ecological and genetic factors.