Embryonic development rates are reflected by the length of incubation period in birds, and these vary substantially among species within and among geographical regions. The incubation periods are consistently shorter in North America (Arizona study site) than in tropical (Venezuela) and subtropical (Argentina) South America based on the study of 83 passerine species in 17 clades. Parents, mothers in particular, may influence incubation periods and resulting offspring quality through proximate pathways, while variation in maternal strategies among species can result from selection by adult and offspring mortality. Parents of long-lived species, as is common in the tropics and subtropics, may be under selection to minimize costs to themselves during incubation. Indeed, time spent incubating is often lower in the tropical and subtropical species than the related north temperate species, causing cooler average egg temperatures in the southern regions. Decreased egg temperatures result in longer incubation periods and reflect a cost imposed on offspring by parents because energy cost to the embryo and risk of offspring predation are both increased. Mothers may adjust egg size and constituents as a means to partially offset such costs. For example, reduced androgen concentrations in egg yolks may slow development rates, but may enhance offspring quality through physiological trade-offs that may be particularly beneficial in longer-lived species, as in the tropics and subtropics. We provide initial data to show that yolks of tropical birds contain substantially lower concentrations of growth-promoting androgens than north temperate relatives. Thus, maternal (and parental) effects on embryonic development rates may include contrasting and complementary proximate influences on offspring quality and deserve further field study among species. ?? 2007 The Royal Society.