The application of molecular genetic techniques has revolutionized our view of avian mating systems. Contrary to prior expectations, birds are only very rarely sexually monogamous, with ‘extra-pair offspring’ found in approximately 90% of species. Even among socially monogamous species, over 11% of offspring are, on average, the result of extra-pair paternity (EPP). Based on over 150 molecular genetic studies of EPP in birds, we review two topical areas: (i) ecological explanations for interspecific variation in the rate of EPP; and (ii) evidence bearing on the adaptive function of EPP. We highlight the remaining challenges of understanding the relative roles of genes and ecology in determining variation between taxa in the rate of extra paternity, and testing for differences between extra-pair offspring and those sired within-pair.