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Timing of arrival/emergence to the breeding grounds is under contrasting natural and sexual selection pressures. Because of differences in sex roles and physiology, the balance between these pressures on either sex may differ, leading to earlier male (protandry) or female (protogyny) arrival. We test several competing hypotheses for the evolution of protandry using migration data for 22 bird species, including for the first time several monochromatic ones where sexual selection is supposedly less intense. Across species, protandry positively covaried with sexual size dimorphism but not with dichromatism. Within species, there was weak evidence that males migrate earlier because, being larger, they are less susceptible to adverse conditions. Our results do not support the ‘rank advantage’ and the ‘differential susceptibility’ hypotheses, nor the ‘mate opportunity’ hypothesis, which predicts covariation of protandry with dichromatism. Conversely, they are compatible with ‘mate choice’ arguments, whereby females use condition-dependent arrival date to assess mate quality.