With rare exceptions, avian offspring are continuously attended by one parent for at least the first few days after hatching. The duration of this phase of the nesting cycle is regulated by a trade-off between the benefits of brooding/guarding and those of foraging. We manipulated offspring age in grey-headed albatrosses, Thalassarche chrysostoma, by swapping chicks between nests. Parents given chicks 6 days older than their own shortened brooding by only 1.2 days, and parents given chicks 6 days younger than their own extended brooding by 1.4 days. Despite being relatively unresponsive to chick age, parents adjusted brooding in relation to calendar date and to chick condition. The results suggest that adults do not use chick age per se as a cue, but instead probably use an internal timer, and fine-tune the decision to end brooding according to date and chick mass. The duration of brood guarding did not correlate with adult body condition, suggesting that adults had a sufficient safety margin to allow them to respond to chick needs without compromising their own residual reproductive value. Chick survival at the end of brood guarding was strongly dependent on calendar date (early and late chicks suffered higher mortality), which suggests that grey-headed albatrosses benefit from breeding synchronously. We conclude that the length of the brood-guarding period is dependent on chick condition and seasonal variation in chick predation risk.