Theory predicts shorter embryonic periods in species with greater embryo mortality risk and smaller body size. Field studies of 80 passerine species on three continents yielded data that largely conflicted with theory; incubation (embryonic) periods were longer rather than shorter in smaller species, and egg (embryo) mortality risk explained some variation within regions, but did not explain larger differences in incubation periods among geographic regions. Incubation behavior of parents seems to explain these discrepancies. Bird embryos are effectively ectothermic and depend on warmth provided by parents sitting on the eggs to attain proper temperatures for development. Parents of smaller species, plus tropical and southern hemisphere species, commonly exhibited lower nest attentiveness (percent of time spent on the nest incubating) than larger and northern hemisphere species. Lower nest attentiveness produced cooler minimum and average embryonic temperatures that were correlated with longer incubation periods independent of nest predation risk or body size. We experimentally tested this correlation by swapping eggs of species with cool incubation temperatures with eggs of species with warm incubation temperatures and similar egg mass. Incubation periods changed (shortened or lengthened) as expected and verified the importance of egg temperature on development rate. Slower development resulting from cooler temperatures may simply be a cost imposed on embryos by parents and may not enhance offspring quality. At the same time, incubation periods of transferred eggs did not match host species and reflect intrinsic differences among species that may result from nest predation and other selection pressures. Thus, geographic variation in embryonic development may reflect more complex interactions than previously recognized. ?? 2007 The Author(s).