1. Informative Bayesian priors can improve the precision of estimates in ecological studies or estimate parameters for which little or no information is available. While Bayesian analyses are becoming more popular in ecology, the use of strongly informative priors remains rare, perhaps because examples of informative priors are not readily available in the published literature.
2. Dispersal distance is an important ecological parameter, but is difficult to measure and estimates are scarce. General models that provide informative prior estimates of dispersal distances will therefore be valuable.
3. Using a world-wide data set on birds, we develop a predictive model of median natal dispersal distance that includes body mass, wingspan, sex and feeding guild. This model predicts median dispersal distance well when using the fitted data and an independent test data set, explaining up to 53% of the variation.
4. Using this model, we predict a priori estimates of median dispersal distance for 57 woodland-dependent bird species in northern Victoria, Australia. These estimates are then used to investigate the relationship between dispersal ability and vulnerability to landscape-scale changes in habitat cover and fragmentation.
5. We find evidence that woodland bird species with poor predicted dispersal ability are more vulnerable to habitat fragmentation than those species with longer predicted dispersal distances, thus improving the understanding of this important phenomenon.
6. The value of constructing informative priors from existing information is also demonstrated. When used as informative priors for four example species, predicted dispersal distances reduced the 95% credible intervals of posterior estimates of dispersal distance by 8–19%. Further, should we have wished to collect information on avian dispersal distances and relate it to species’ responses to habitat loss and fragmentation, data from 221 individuals across 57 species would have been required to obtain estimates with the same precision as those provided by the general model.