Considerable uncertainty surrounds the conditions under which birds can cause trophic cascades. In a three-year experiment, we studied the direct and indirect effects of insectivorous birds on arthropod abundance, herbivory, and growth of striped maple Acer pensylvanicum saplings in a northern hardwood forest of central New Hampshire, USA. We manipulated bird predation by erecting exclosures around saplings and directly manipulated herbivory by removing herbivores. We also examined how climate modifies these interactions by replicating the experiment at three locations along an elevational gradient. Effects of bird predation were variable. Overall, mean arthropod biomass was 20% greater on saplings within bird exclosures than on controls (p<0.05). The mean biomass of leaf-chewing herbivores, primarily Lepidoptera larvae, was 25% greater within exclosures but not statistically different from controls. To a lesser degree, mean herbivore damage to foliage within exclosures exceeded that of controls but differences were not significant. We also did not detect significant treatment effects on sapling shoot growth. The high understory vegetation density relative to bird abundance, and low rate of herbivory during the study (mean 5% leaf area removed, controls), may have limited the ability of birds to affect sapling growth. Climate effects operated at multiple scales, resulting in a complex interplay of interactions within the food web. Regional synchrony of climatic conditions resulted in annual fluctuations in herbivore abundance and tree growth that were shared across elevations. At the same time, local environmental variation resulted in site differences in the plant, herbivore, and bird communities. These patterns resulted in a mosaic of top–down strengths across time and space, suggesting an overall pattern of limited effects of birds on plant growth, possibly interspersed with hotspots of trophic cascades.