In many avian species, including Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), females that lay eggs earlier in the season have higher fitness. It has been hypothesized that nonheritable variation in individual quality could explain how variation in laying date persists in the face of this apparently directional selection. Previous experimental work on Tree Swallows has suggested that natural variation in flight ability enables early-laying females to attain feeding rates high enough to support egg production on earlier, sparser food than later-laying females. We tested that hypothesis with standardized flights through a 9.75-m flight-performance test tunnel. One group of female swallows was tested at the height of the breeding season on 28 May regardless of their nesting phenology; another group was tested on the 11th day of incubation. Average acceleration in the tunnel was negatively correlated with clutch initiation date for the females tested on 28 May. Daily variation in ambient environmental conditions had strong effects on swallow flight performance in the tunnel, and no relationship was observed in the day-11 birds. Because natural variation in foraging performance is correlated with variation in female Tree Swallows' clutch initiation dates, flight ability appears to be a key element of individual quality in this species.
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Vol. 121 • No. 2