Most studies of variation in male reproductive tactics have focused on conspicuous categorical differences in mating behaviour (i.e. variation in mating strategies). However, in the presence of trade–offs between investment in competition over matings, parental care and survival, a male's optimal allocation rule might vary according to his physiological condition and social or ecological environment. Thus, there may also be more subtle variation in male reproductive tactics. Here, I show that the reproductive effort (estimated as residual change in condition) of male collared flycatchers was affected by the size of their forehead patch (a secondary sexual character), age and date of arrival at the breeding grounds. Among early males (i.e. males with a high likelihood of both attracting more than one female and obtaining extra-pair copulations), large–patched males made a relatively large reproductive effort and as a result were in worse condition at the time of feeding offspring as compared to small–patched males. Furthermore, among early breeders, young males and males with experimentally increased forehead patch size made a relatively high effort. By contrast, regardless of age and badge size, there were no such patterns observed among late breeders. These results suggest that collared flycatchers use different reproductive tactics depending on both internal and external factors, and that the size of a secondary sexual trait may not only indicate variation in individual condition but also predict how resources will be allocated between pre– and post–mating reproductive activities.