Many bird species reproduce earlier in years with high spring temperatures, but little is known about the causal effect of temperature. Temperature may have a direct effect on timing of reproduction but the correlation may also be indirect, for instance via food phenology. As climate change has led to substantial shifts in timing, it is essential to understand this causal relationship to predict future impacts of climate change. We tested the direct effect of temperature on laying dates in great tits (Parus major) using climatized aviaries in a 6-year experiment. We mimicked the temperature patterns from two specific years in which our wild population laid either early (‘warm’ treatment) or late (‘cold’ treatment). Laying dates were affected by temperature directly. As the relevant temperature period started three weeks prior to the mean laying date, with a range of just 4°C between the warm and the cold treatments, and as the birds were fed ad libitum, it is likely that temperature acted as a cue rather than lifting an energetic constraint on the onset of egg production. We furthermore show a high correlation between the laying dates of individuals reproducing both in aviaries and in the wild, validating investigations of reproduction of wild birds in captivity. Our results demonstrate that temperature has a direct effect on timing of breeding, an important step towards assessing the implication of climate change on seasonal timing.