The vertebrate stress response helps animals respond to environmental dangers such as predators or storms. An important component of the stress response is glucocorticoid (GC) release, resulting from activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. After release, GCs induce a variety of behavioral and physiological changes that presumably help the animal respond appropriately to the situation. Consequently, GC secretion is often considered an obligatory response to stressful situations. Evidence now indicates, however, that free-living species from many taxa can seasonally modulate GC release. In other words, the magnitudes of both unstressed and stressed GC concentrations change depending upon the time of year. This review examines the growing evidence that GC concentrations in free-living reptiles, amphibians, and birds, but not mammals, are commonly elevated during the breeding season. This evidence is then used to test three hypotheses with different focuses on GC's energetic or behavioral effects, as well as on GC's role in preparing the animal for subsequent stressors. These hypotheses attempt to place annual GC rhythms into a physiological or behavioral context. Integrating seasonal differences in GC concentrations with either different physiological states or different life history stages provides clues to a new understanding of how GCs actually help in survival during stress. Consequently, understanding seasonal modulation of GC release has far-reaching importance for both the physiology of the stress response and the short-term survival of individual animals.