• diurnal variation;
  • energy reserves;
  • Phylloscopus;
  • timing of moult;
  • winter survival strategies

1. We studied fat storage in a population of greenish leaf warblers (Phylloscopus trochiloides) in southern India over four winters (1993–97). This species breeds in temperate regions and overwinters in India from October to April.

2. Diurnal variation in fat scores was comparable to that seen among temperate wintering passerines. Seasonal variation was slight, except for premigratory fattening. There was significant annual variation: in drier winters, which were also winters of low food supplies, fat scores were higher.

3. Energy metabolized overnight is unlikely to vary across winters, and annual variation in fat scores is considered a response to uncertainty of food intake on a given day. Fat scores varied inversely with short-term rainfall, which drives the abundance of arthropod prey.

4. Annual variation in fat scores was not accompanied by changes in total body mass. This suggests that protein reserves were being compromised by increased fat deposition in dry years and offers an explanation for the observed delay in moult during drier winters. These results suggest that strategies for maximizing short-term probability of survival translate into future fitness costs, and may shape long-term life-history strategies through simple physiological processes.