1. Global climate has changed significantly during the past 30 years and especially in northern temperate regions which have experienced poleward shifts in temperature regimes. While there is evidence that some species have responded by moving their distributions to higher latitudes, the efficiency of this response in tracking species’ climatic niche boundaries over time has yet to be addressed.
2. Here, we provide a continental assessment of the temporal structure of species responses to recent spatial shifts in climatic conditions. We examined geographic associations with minimum winter temperature for 59 species of winter avifauna at 476 Christmas Bird Count circles in North America from 1975 to 2009 under three sampling schemes that account for spatial and temporal sampling effects.
3. Minimum winter temperature associated with species occurrences showed an overall increase with a weakening trend after 1998. Species displayed highly variable responses that, on average and across sampling schemes, contained a strong lag effect that weakened in strength over time. In general, the conservation of minimum winter temperature was relevant when all species were considered together but only after an initial lag period (c. 35 years) was overcome. The delayed niche tracking observed at the combined species level was likely supported by the post1998 lull in the warming trend.
4. There are limited geographic and ecological explanations for the observed variability, suggesting that the efficiency of species’ responses under climate change is likely to be highly idiosyncratic and difficult to predict. This outcome is likely to be even more pronounced and time lags more persistent for less vagile taxa, particularly during the periods of consistent or accelerating warming. Current modelling efforts and conservation strategies need to better appreciate the variation, strength and duration of lag effects and their association with climatic variability. Conservation strategies in particular will benefit through identifying and maintaining dispersal corridors that accommodate diverging dispersal strategies and timetables.