A stage model traces key behavioural tactics and life–history traits that are involved in the transition from promiscuity with no parental care, the mating system that typifies reptiles, to that typical of most birds, social monogamy with biparental care. In stage I, females assumed increasing parental investment in precocial young, female choice of mates increased, female–biased mating dispersal evolved and population sex ratios became male biased. In stage II, consortships between mating partners allowed males to attract rare social mates, provided a mechanism for paternity assessment and increased female ability to assess mate quality. In stage III, relative female scarcity enabled females to demand parental investment contributions from males having some paternity certainty. This innovation was facilitated by the nature of avian parental care; i.e. most care–giving activities can be adopted in small units. Moreover, the initial cost of care giving to males was small compared with its benefit to females. Males, however, tended to decline to assume non–partitionable, risky, or relatively costly parental activities. In stage IV, altriciality coevolved with increasing biparental care, resulting in social monogamy. Approaches for testing behavioural hypotheses are suggested.