In many species mature individuals delay independent reproduction and may help others to reproduce. This behaviour is often explained through ecological constraints, although recently attention has also been paid to the variation in habitat quality. If the quality of vacant habitat influences the fitness trade–off between delaying reproduction and breeding independently, individuals should delay reproduction when conditions for breeding are poor. Yet, no study has experimentally manipulated habitat quality or the conditions experienced during the breeding period to test this assertion conclusively. We report results from an experiment conducted on a colonial cooperative bird with no territory constraints on reproduction. We artificially improved breeding conditions in several colonies of sociable weavers, Philetairus socius, through the provision of an easily obtainable and unlimited supply of food. We provide experimental evidence showing that under enhanced conditions some individuals reduce their age at first reproduction, a greater proportion of colony members engage in independent breeding and proportionally fewer birds act as helpers. Hence, these results also provide evidence for a direct influence of reproductive costs on life–history decisions such as age at first reproduction and breeding and helping behaviours.