Shortening of telomeres, specific nucleotide repeats that cap eukaryotic chromosomes, is thought to play an important role in cellular and organismal senescence. We examined telomere dynamics in two long–lived seabirds, the European shag and the wandering albatross. Telomere length in blood cells declines between the chick stage and adulthood in both species. However, among adults, telomere length is not related to age. This is consistent with reports of most telomere loss occurring early in life in other vertebrates. Thus, caution must be used in estimating annual rates of telomere loss, as these are probably not constant with age. We also measured changes within individuals in the wild, using repeat samples taken from individual shags as chicks and adults. We found high inter–individual variation in the magnitude of telomere loss, much of which was explained by circumstances during growth. Individuals laying down high tissue mass for their size showed greater telomere shortening. Independently of this, individuals born late in the season showed more telomere loss. Early conditions, possibly through their effects on oxidative stress, appear to play an important role in telomere attrition and thus potentially in the longevity of individuals.