• co-operative breeding;
  • DNA fingerprinting;
  • extrapair paternity;
  • helping;
  • relatedness

In central coastal California, USA, 3–16% of western bluebird (Sialia mexicana) pairs have adult male helpers at the nest. Demographic data on a colour-ringed population over a 13-year period indicate that helpers gain a small indirect fitness benefit through increases in the number of young fledged from nests of close kin. A small proportion of adult helpers (16%) that were able to breed and help simultaneously had higher annual inclusive fitness than males that only bred. These males comprised such a minor proportion of helpers that the mean fitness of helpers was still lower than the mean fitness of independent breeders. We used DNA fingerprinting to determine whether extrapair fertilizations alter within-group benefits enough to tip the balance in favour of helping behaviour. Overall, 19% of 207 offspring were sired by males other than their social father and extrapair fertilizations occurred in 45% of 51 nests. Intraspecific brood parasitism was rare so that mean mother-nestling relatedness approximated the expected value of 0.5. Extrapair paternity reduced putative father-offspring relatedness to 0.38. Mean helper-nestling relatedness was 0.41 for helpers assisting one or both parents and 0.28 for helpers aiding their brothers. Helpers rarely sired offspring in the nests at which they helped. Helping was not conditional on paternity and helpers were not significantly more closely related to offspring in their parents’ nests than to offspring in their own nests. Although helpers may derive extracurricular benefits if helping increases their own or their father's opportunities for extrapair fertilizations, within-nest inclusive fitness benefits of helping do not compensate males for failing to breed. Breeding failure and constraints on breeding are the most likely explanations for why most helpers help.