A 31-year study of pied flycatchers shows that it is the temperature at arrival when the offspring return to breed up to two years later that drives selection on breeding time.
Climate change has differentially affected the timing of seasonal events for interacting trophic levels, and this has often led to increased selection on seasonal timing. Yet, the environmental variables driving this selection have rarely been identified, limiting our ability to predict future ecological impacts of climate change. Using a dataset spanning 31 years from a natural population of pied flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca), we show that directional selection on timing of reproduction intensified in the first two decades (1980–2000) but weakened during the last decade (2001–2010). Against expectation, this pattern could not be explained by the temporal variation in the phenological mismatch with food abundance. We therefore explored an alternative hypothesis that selection on timing was affected by conditions individuals experience when arriving in spring at the breeding grounds: arriving early in cold conditions may reduce survival. First, we show that in female recruits, spring arrival date in the first breeding year correlates positively with hatch date; hence, early-hatched individuals experience colder conditions at arrival than late-hatched individuals. Second, we show that when temperatures at arrival in the recruitment year were high, early-hatched young had a higher recruitment probability than when temperatures were low. We interpret this as a potential cost of arriving early in colder years, and climate warming may have reduced this cost. We thus show that higher temperatures in the arrival year of recruits were associated with stronger selection for early reproduction in the years these birds were born. As arrival temperatures in the beginning of the study increased, but recently declined again, directional selection on timing of reproduction showed a nonlinear change. We demonstrate that environmental conditions with a lag of up to two years can alter selection on phenological traits in natural populations, something that has important implications for our understanding of how climate can alter patterns of selection in natural populations.