Developmental stressors often have long-term fitness consequences, but linking offspring traits to fitness prospects has remained a challenge. Telomere length predicts mortality in adult birds, and may provide a link between developmental conditions and fitness prospects. Here, we examine the effects of manipulated brood size on growth, telomere dynamics and post-fledging survival in free-living jackdaws. Nestlings in enlarged broods achieved lower mass and lost 21% more telomere repeats relative to nestlings in reduced broods, showing that developmental stress accelerates telomere shortening. Adult telomere length was positively correlated with their telomere length as nestling (r = 0.83). Thus, an advantage of long telomeres in nestlings is carried through to adulthood. Nestling telomere shortening predicted post-fledging survival and recruitment independent of manipulation and fledgling mass. This effect was strong, with a threefold difference in recruitment probability over the telomere shortening range. By contrast, absolute telomere length was neither affected by brood size manipulation nor related to survival. We conclude that telomere loss, but not absolute telomere length, links developmental conditions to subsequent survival and suggest that telomere shortening may provide a key to unravelling the physiological causes of developmental effects on fitness.