Fitness can be profoundly influenced by the age at first reproduction (AFR), but to date the AFR–fitness relationship only has been investigated intraspecifically. Here, we investigated the relationship between AFR and average lifetime reproductive success (LRS) across 34 bird species. We assessed differences in the deviation of the Optimal AFR (i.e., the species-specific AFR associated with the highest LRS) from the age at sexual maturity, considering potential effects of life history as well as social and ecological factors. Most individuals adopted the species-specific Optimal AFR and both the mean and Optimal AFR of species correlated positively with life span. Interspecific deviations of the Optimal AFR were associated with indices reflecting a change in LRS or survival as a function of AFR: a delayed AFR was beneficial in species where early AFR was associated with a decrease in subsequent survival or reproductive output. Overall, our results suggest that a delayed onset of reproduction beyond maturity is an optimal strategy explained by a long life span and costs of early reproduction. By providing the first empirical confirmations of key predictions of life-history theory across species, this study contributes to a better understanding of life-history evolution.