Nonnative plant invasions are a management concern, particularly in riparian forests, but little is known about mechanisms through which they influence vertebrate communities. In the American Southwest, native trees such as cottonwood (Populus spp.) are thought to provide better habitat for breeding birds than nonnative plants, which are more tolerant of human-altered conditions. To evaluate effects of riparian forest composition on riparian-nesting birds, we examined nest plant use along two rivers in New Mexico that differed in abundance of nonnative vegetation. Of the nests we observed, 49% along the Middle Rio Grande were constructed in nonnative plants, compared with 4% along the Gila River. Birds in the canopy and cavity-nesting guilds constructed less than 5% of their nests in nonnative plants along either river. At the Middle Rio Grande, birds in the subcanopy/shrub guild constructed 67% of their nests in nonnative plants. Despite the relatively low availability of cottonwoods, they were used by greater numbers of species than any other woody plant at either river. Riparian obligates and species of conservation concern in the canopy and cavity guilds were especially dependent on cottonwood and Arizona sycamore (Platanus wrightii). Our results show that, although nonnative trees and shrubs support large numbers of nests for certain birds, cottonwoods and other large native trees are disproportionately important to riparian bird communities. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.