The yolk of bird eggs contains maternal carotenoids that may act as antioxidants thus influencing offspring performance and survival. However, to our knowledge, this hypothesis has not been subjected to experimental tests and the function of transmission of carotenoids to the egg is largely unknown. We directly manipulated the concentration of the main carotenoid (lutein) in the eggs of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) and analysed the effect of experimental manipulation on growth of nestlings and two fundamental components of their acquired immunity. Nestlings hatched from lutein–inoculated eggs had larger T–cell–mediated immune response compared with those of two control groups. T–cell–mediated immune response predicted nestling survival until fledging. However, lutein inoculation did not affect antibody response to an immunogen, body mass, tarsus length or plumage development. Nestling body mass and plumage development declined with egg laying order, but the effects of lutein inoculation were independent of egg laying order for all traits. Our results show that maternal yolk carotenoids can have a major effect in promoting a fundamental component of immunity that predicts offspring survival and suggests that adaptive early maternal effects can be mediated by transmission of antioxidants to eggs.