Differences in individual quality and survival within species are a major focus in evolutionary ecology, but we know very little about the underlying physiological mechanisms that determine these differences. Telomere shortening associated with cellular senescence and ageing may be one such mechanism. To date, however, there is little evidence linking telomere length and survival. Here, we show that tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) with relatively short telomeres at the age of 1 year have lower survival than tree swallows of the same age with relatively long telomeres. The survival advantage in the long telomere group continues for at least three breeding seasons. It will be important to identify mechanisms that link telomere length with survival early in life.