Timing of breeding in Tengmalm's Owl was studied in western Finland for 13 years. During 1973-85, half of the females started laying before 4 April, near the seasonal low of main food abundance (voles), and earlier than in southern Finland or as early as in southeastern Norway. The reason for this latitudinal trend is the shallow snow cover of the study area. The annual variation in the median laying dates was one month and was negatively correlated with the spring abundance of Microtus voles. The mean clutch size was related to the start of laying with early clutches being larger than late ones. These findings accord with the ‘food limitation hypothesis’, which states that laying begins as soon as the female can accumulate enough energy stores for forming eggs. Early breeding is adaptive, since juveniles of early clutches probably survive better during their first winter. In adults, early nesting improves the chances of rearing two broods per year, allows them to moult after breeding and gives more time to accumulate fat reserves to survive the winter. Tengmalm's Owl is one of the earliest breeders among North European birds. This is possible because of its hole-nesting and resident habits, small body-size in relation to the main prey and the greatest sexual size dimorphism among European owls.