Bird species adapted to variable environments tend to have slow lean tissue growth rates and high fat deposition rates, allowing survival during food shortages. This emphasis on fat deposition may be a fixed physiological trait. Alternatively, tissue allocation may be adjusted facultatively according to the proximate food supply. We consider two models of facultative adjustment that could account for the emphasis on fat deposition: (1) the fat‐priority model, in which no lean growth occurs when food is scarce, and (2) the lean‐priority model, in which a minimal level of lean growth always occurs but nutrients are otherwise allocated to fat deposition. We tested these two models using Welcome Swallows Hirundo neoxena, a species we show to have a variable food supply that is influenced by weather. We reduced food supply to chicks experimentally, by enlarging broods or excluding parents from chicks, and tested for reduction in wing growth (an indicator of lean growth) and mass growth (an indicator of fat deposition). Mass growth was retarded by both manipulations, but not wing growth, corroborating the lean‐priority model. This growth strategy may function not to cope with violent variation in food supply, but to maintain development and symmetry of wings and feathers in the face of moderate variation in food supply. Our results contrast with those of a similar experiment on the Black Noddy Anous minutus, a species with more severe variation in food supply.

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