Individuals of different quality may have different investment strategies, shaping responses to experimental manipulations, thereby rendering the detection of such patterns difficult. However, previous clutch–size manipulation studies have infrequently incorporated individual differences in quality. To examine costs of incubation and reproductive investment in relation to changes in clutch size, we enlarged and reduced natural clutch sizes of four and five eggs by one egg early in the incubation period in female common eiders (Somateria mollissima), a sea duck with an anorectic incubation period. Females that had produced four eggs (lower quality) responded to clutch reductions by deserting the nest more frequently but did not increase incubation effort in response to clutch enlargement, at the cost of reduced hatch success of eggs. Among birds with an original clutch size of five (higher quality), reducing and enlarging clutch size reduced and increased relative body mass loss respectively without affecting hatch success. In common eiders many females abandon their own ducklings to the care of other females. Enlarging five–egg clutches led to increased brood care rate despite the higher effort spent incubating these clutches, indicating that the higher fitness value of a large brood is increasing adult brood investment. This study shows that the ability to respond to clutch–size manipulations depends on original clutch size, reflecting differences in female quality. Females of low quality were reluctant to increase investment at the cost of lower hatch success, whereas females of higher quality apparently have a larger capacity both to increase incubation effort and brood care investment.