The idea that resources are limited and animals can maximise fitness by trading costly activities off against one another forms the basis of life-history theory. Although investment in reproduction or growth negatively affects survival, the mechanisms underlying such trade-offs remain obscure. One plausible mechanism is oxidative damage to proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS). Here, we critically evaluate the premise that ROS-induced oxidative damage shapes life history, focussing on birds and mammals, and highlight the importance of ecological studies examining free-living animals within this experimental framework. We conclude by emphasising the value of using multiple assays to determine oxidative protection and damage. We also highlight the importance of using standardised and appropriate protocols, and discuss future research directions.