In western North America, riparian vegetation is being lost in response to changes in land use and climate. We examined the relationship between obligate riparian species of songbirds and environmental and riparian habitat factors in three mountain ranges in the central Great Basin (Nevada, U.S.A.). We estimated patterns of occupancy, colonization, and local extinction for three species detected during the breeding seasons of 2001–2006: MacGillivray's Warbler (Oporornis tolmiei), Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus), and Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). We used model selection and multimodel inference to identify functional relationships between the occupancy of each species and multiple habitat variables, including the structure and composition of riparian vegetation. Among all years and species, we observed considerable variation in estimates of detection probability. For MacGillivray's Warbler, annual occupancy rates were relatively constant. Occupancy rates for Broad-tailed Hummingbird and Song Sparrow increased during the first 3–4 years of our study and then decreased. Each species experienced its highest rate of local extinction during 2005. Different components of riparian vegetation were good predictors of occupancy, colonization, and local extinction for each species. Typically, elevation and latitude also were strong predictors. Establishing functional relationships between avifauna and vegetation is essential to predicting how land-cover change may affect the occupancy of riparian areas and other habitats for birds. The conservation of breeding birds in riparian areas in the central Great Basin is more likely to succeed if the quality of their understory habitat as well as the canopy is maintained and restored.