The evolution of migratory strategies in birds is likely to have been influenced by ecological as well as socio-sexual factors in both wintering and breeding areas. In this comparative study, we analysed timing of spring passage of 38 long-distance migratory bird species that winter south of the Sahara desert and breed in Europe, in relation to wintering and breeding latitudes, moult strategy, nesting site (open vs. cavity), and sexual dimorphism in size and coloration, which may reflect intensity of sexual selection. We employed a large data set consisting of more than 190 000 individuals ringed during spring migration in the Mediterranean Sea. We found that the species that migrated earlier were those wintering farther north, nesting in cavities and showing the largest degree of sexual size dimorphism (SSD). However, sexual dichromatism was not related to migration date. Among passerine species, moulting wing-feathers in Africa delayed migration. We found no support for the energetic constraint hypothesis, which proposes that early arrival selects for large male size, since early arriving species were not larger than late arriving ones. Thus, the observed associations suggest that variation in migration schedules at the interspecific level may have evolved in relation to ecological factors and SSD, possibly reflecting the intensity of mating competition. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 85, 199–210.