Generally, immune system architecture varies with different environments, which presumably reflect different pathogen pressures. Specifically, populations from relatively disease-free, oceanic islands are expected to exhibit reorganized immune systems, which might be characterized by attenuated responses, given the costs of immune function. Some insular animals exhibit an ‘island syndrome,’ including increased susceptibility to disease, and some insular populations have declined when they failed to resist infection by introduced pathogens. I measured eight indices of immune function (haemolysis, haemagglutination, concentration of haptoglobin and concentration of five leukocyte types) in 15 phylogenetically matched pairs of bird populations from North America and from the islands of Hawaii, Bermuda and the Galápagos. Immune responses were not attenuated in insular birds, and several indices, including the concentration of plasma haptoglobin, were elevated. Thus, I find no support for the specific hypothesis that depauperate parasite communities and the costs of immune defences select for reduced immune function. Instead, I suggest that life on islands leads to an apparent reorganization of immune function, which is defined by increases in defences that are innate and inducible. These increases might signal that systems of acquired humoral immunity and immunological memory are less important or dysfunctional in island populations.