Extreme environmental perturbations are rare, but may have important evolutionary consequences. Responses to current perturbations may provide important information about the ability of living organisms to cope with similar conditions in the evolutionary past. Radioactive contamination from Chernobyl constitutes one such extreme perturbation, with significant but highly variable impact on local population density and mutation rates of different species of animals and plants. We explicitly tested the hypothesis that species with strong impacts of radiation on abundance were those with high rates of historical mutation accumulation as reflected by cytochrome b mitochondrial DNA base-pair substitution rates during past environmental perturbations. Using a dataset of 32 species of birds, we show higher historical mitochondrial substitution rates in species with the strongest negative impact of local levels of radiation on local population density. These effects were robust to different estimates of impact of radiation on abundance, weighting of estimates of abundance by sample size, statistical control for similarity in the response among species because of common phylogenetic descent, and effects of population size and longevity. Therefore, species that respond strongly to the impact of radiation from Chernobyl are also the species that in the past have been most susceptible to factors that have caused high substitution rates in mitochondrial DNA.