The study of tradeoffs among life-history traits has long been key to understanding the evolution of life-history strategies. However, more recently, evolutionary ecologists have realized that reproductive costs have the potential to influence population dynamics. Here, we tested for costs of reproduction in the California Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis), and assessed whether costs of reproduction in year t − 1 on reproduction in year t could be responsible for regionally synchronized biennial cycles in reproductive output. Logistic regression analysis and multistate mark–recapture models with state uncertainty revealed that breeding reduced the likelihood of reproducing in the subsequent year by 16% to 38%, but had no influence on subsequent survival. We also found that costs of reproduction in year t − 1 were correlated with climatic conditions in year t, with evidence of higher costs during the dry phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation. Using a simulation-based population model, we showed that strong reproductive costs had the potential to create biennial cycles in population-level reproductive output; however, estimated costs of reproduction appeared to be too small to explain patterns observed in Spotted Owls. In the absence of strong reproductive costs, we hypothesize that observed natural cycles in the reproductive output of Spotted Owls are related to as-yet-unmeasured, regionally concordant fluctuations in environmental conditions or prey resources. Despite theoretical evidence for demographic effects, our analyses illustrate that linking tradeoffs to actual changes in population processes will be challenging because of the potential confounding effects of individual and environmental variation.