Avian incubation attentiveness has important fitness consequences through its influence on the number and quality of hatched young and energetic costs imposed on parents. Nest attentiveness is highly variable across species and geographical regions. We reviewed the literature and found a worldwide pattern that nest attentiveness of passerines is generally lower in south temperate and tropical regions than in north temperate regions. We also conducted a food manipulation experiment to assess the extent to which nest attentiveness may reflect proximate responses versus an evolved behaviour. We used the karoo prinia, Prinia maculosa, in South Africa, which has very low nest attentiveness (???49%) compared with that of many passerine birds. We provided supplemental food during early incubation to experimental females and compared nest attentiveness and on- and off-bout lengths of experimental and paired control females.??Nest attentiveness of females at food-provisioned nests was significantly higher than that of control females (57% versus 49%). Food-supplemented females also spent significantly less time off the nest than did control females, whereas mean on-bout lengths did not differ. However, mean nest attentiveness of food-provisioned females was still substantially below that of other similar bird species worldwide. Food can be an important proximate influence on parental care behaviour, but proximate influences of food do not explain broad latitudinal patterns of attentiveness. ?? 2007 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.