1. Many studies have provided evidence that first-time breeders have a lower survival, a lower probability of success, or of breeding, in the following year. Hypotheses based on reproductive costs have often been proposed to explain this. However, because of the intrinsic relationship between age and experience, the apparent inferiority of first-time breeders at the population level may result from selection, and experience may not influence performance within each individual. In this paper we address the question of phenotypic correlations between fitness components. This addresses differences in individual quality, a prerequisite for a selection process to occur. We also test the hypothesis of an influence of experience on these components while taking age and reproductive success into account: two factors likely to play a key role in a selection process.
2. Using data from a long-term study on the kittiwake, we found that first-time breeders have a lower probability of success, a lower survival and a lower probability of breeding in the next year than experienced breeders. However, neither experienced nor inexperienced breeders have a lower survival or a lower probability of breeding in the following year than birds that skipped a breeding opportunity. This suggests heterogeneity in quality among individuals.
3. Failed birds have a lower survival and a lower probability of breeding in the following year regardless of experience. This can be interpreted in the light of the selection hypothesis. The inferiority of inexperienced breeders may be linked to a higher proportion of lower-quality individuals in younger age classes. When age and breeding success are controlled for, there is no evidence of an influence of experience on survival or future breeding probability.
4. Using data from individuals whose reproductive life lasted the same number of years, we investigated the influence of experience on reproductive performance within individuals. There is no strong evidence that a process operating within individuals explains the improvement in performance observed at the population level.