• climate change;
  • great tit;
  • timing of breeding


  • 1
    Breeding birds increase their fitness by synchronizing their production of chicks with a peak of food abundance. Synchronization is primarily achieved by varying first egg date, but yearly temperature variations may delay or accelerate the food peak after the first egg has been laid. We tested the extent to which great tits (Parus major L.) can strategically change their synchronization of hatch date with the food peak after the first egg has been laid by changing clutch size, laying interval and the amount of incubation. We also tested whether these possible synchronization change mechanisms resulted in changes in breeding success, because if the food peak is late relative to first egg date, we would predict more of the population to have larger clutches and/or a hatch date synchronous with the food peak date.
  • 2
    Great tits modified synchronization strategically by varying clutch size and the onset of incubation after clutch completion. When first egg date was early but then followed by cold weather so that the food peak was late, clutch sizes were larger, and when first egg date was late and temperatures were low, mean incubation periods were shorter if the food peak was early.
  • 3
    Over the 39-year period of the study, the period between the first egg date and food peak increased significantly by 1·7 days more than the period between the food peak and hatch date. Great tits have maintained synchronization by significantly increasing their incubation period.
  • 4
    Overall, the proportion of nests that had synchronous hatch dates depended on the yearly temperature pattern: the decline in variance between date of clutch completion and hatch was significantly greater in years where prelaying temperatures were higher (i.e. early first egg dates) and has therefore increased in recent years because of climate change. In warm early seasons (and more often in recent years) more of the great tits that laid relatively late had sufficient time to complete their clutches before having to start incubation in order to hatch in time for the food peak.
  • 5
    The increased proportion of synchronized nests in recent years probably resulted in increased chick output: a greater proportion of recent nests successfully fledged all of the chicks that hatched and the number of young fledged per successful nest also increased in recent years. These changes may have arisen because the proportion of nests with disadvantageous asynchronous hatching and/or smaller clutches has decreased. As the proportion of great tits that start nesting too late to synchronize has declined so selection for early laying has also declined in recent years.