After birds diverged from mammals, different ancestral autosomes evolved into sex chromosomes in each lineage. In birds, females are ZW and males are ZZ, but in mammals females are XX and males are XY. We sequenced the chicken W chromosome, compared its gene content with our reconstruction of the ancestral autosomes, and followed the evolutionary trajectory of ancestral W-linked genes across birds. Avian W chromosomes evolved in parallel with mammalian Y chromosomes, preserving ancestral genes through selection to maintain the dosage of broadly expressed regulators of key cellular processes. We propose that, like the human Y chromosome, the chicken W chromosome is essential for embryonic viability of the heterogametic sex. Unlike other sequenced sex chromosomes, the chicken W chromosome did not acquire and amplify genes specifically expressed in reproductive tissues. We speculate that the pressures that drive the acquisition of reproduction-related genes on sex chromosomes may be specific to the male germ line.