1. It has been suggested that immune defences are shaped by life history and ecology, but few general patterns have been described across species. We hypothesized that 'fast' life-history traits (e.g. short development times, large clutch sizes) would be associated with developmentally inexpensive immune defences, minimizing the resource demands of young animals' immune systems during periods of rapid growth. Conversely, 'slow' life histories should be associated with well developed antibody-mediated defences, which are developmentally costly. 2. We therefore predicted that 'fast-living' species would exhibit higher levels of complement proteins, a component of non-specific innate defence, but lower levels of constitutive ('natural') antibodies. Additionally, we predicted that constitutive immune defences in general would be higher in species with ecological characteristics that might increase exposure to pathogens, such as open nests, omnivorous diets, gregariousness, and closed forested habitat. 3. Across 70 Neotropical bird species, we found a strongly positive relationship between incubation period and natural antibody levels in adult birds, suggesting that longer developmental times might allow the production of a more diverse and/or more reactive adaptive immune system. Complement activity was positively, although weakly, correlated with clutch size, providing some support for the hypothesis that faster-living species rely more on innate defences, such as complement. Unexpectedly, solitary species had higher natural antibody titres than species that frequently join flocks. 4. Our results suggest that, despite probably widespread differences in the intensity and diversity of pathogen exposure, species-level variation in constitutive immune defences is understandable within the context of life-history theory.