Droughts are expected to become more frequent under global climate change. Avifauna depend on precipitation for hydration, cover, and food. While there are indications that avian communities respond negatively to drought, little is known about the response of birds with differing functional and behavioural traits, what time periods and indicators of drought are most relevant, or how response varies geographically at broad spatial scales. Our goals were thus to determine (1) how avian abundance and species richness are related to drought, (2) whether community variations are more related to vegetation vigour or precipitation deviations and at what time periods relationships were strongest, (3) how response varies among avian guilds, and (4) how response varies among ecoregions with different precipitation regimes. Using mixed effect models and 1989–2005 North American Breeding Bird Survey data over the central United States, we examined the response to 10 precipitation- and greenness-based metrics by abundance and species richness of the avian community overall, and of four behavioural guilds. Drought was associated with the most negative impacts on avifauna in the semiarid Great Plains, while positive responses were observed in montane areas. Our models predict that in the plains, Neotropical migrants respond the most negatively to extreme drought, decreasing by 13.2% and 6.0% in abundance and richness, while permanent resident abundance and richness increase by 11.5% and 3.6%, respectively in montane areas. In most cases, response of abundance was greater than richness and models based on precipitation metrics spanning 32-week time periods were more supported than those covering shorter time periods and those based on greenness. While drought is but one of myriad environmental variations birds encounter, our results indicate that drought is capable of imposing sizable shifts in abundance, richness, and composition on avian communities, an important implication of a more climatically variable future.
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