Early arrival at the breeding area after spring migration determines several fitness benefits to migratory birds, including an early start of reproduction and a greater seasonal reproductive success. Environmental conditions determine the onset of migration at the population level, while physiological costs associated with migration and imposed on individuals determine the level of asynchrony in the pattern of arrival. These costs include several physiological changes, suppression of immune response, and an increased risk of oxidation by production of free radicals due to energetically expensive activities. According to the condition-dependent hypothesis of arrival date, only healthy individuals in prime condition can afford to arrive and thus reproduce early in the season.
We investigated condition-dependence of arrival date in male barn swallow (Hirundo rustica L.), a migratory passerine, in two years that differed in environmental condition, and the role of carotenoids in mediating arrival date. We show that male tail length, the main secondary sexual character, body condition, and hematocrit were negatively correlated with arrival date in the first year, indicating better quality of early arriving males. In the second year, better environmental conditions advanced arrival of the entire population by weeks. In this season we could show no relationship between arrival and tail length or body condition. Moreover, a lower value of sedimentation rate and a brighter colour of the red throat feathers indicated better health status of the population. Arrival date is a condition-dependent character in barn swallows, since we found high repeatability of arrival date, lower values of carotenoids in blood and a lower depletion of carotenoids in blood shortly after arrival in early arriving males. This suggests that early arriving males either use fewer antioxidants for free radical scavenging, or they have differential access to antioxidants.