Combined effects of heat waves and droughts on avian communities across the conterminous United States

Thomas P. Albright, Anna M. Pidgeon, Chadwick D. Rittenhouse, Murray K. Clayton, Brian D. Wardlow, Curtis H. Flather, Patrick D. Culbert, Volker C. Radeloff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


Increasing surface temperatures and climatic variability associated with global climate change are expected to produce more frequent and intense heat waves and droughts in many parts of the world. Our goal was to elucidate the fundamental, but poorly understood, effects of these extreme weather events on avian communities across the conterminous United States. Specifically, we explored: (1) the effects of timing and duration of heat and drought events, (2) the effects of jointly occurring drought and heat waves relative to these events occurring in isolation, and (3) how effects vary among functional groups related to nest location and migratory habit, and among ecoregions with differing precipitation and temperature regimes. Using data from remote sensing, meteorological stations, and the North American Breeding Bird Survey, we used mixed effects models to quantify responses of overall and functional group abundance to heat waves and droughts (occurring alone or in concert) at two key periods in the annual cycle of birds: breeding and post-fledging. We also compared responses among species with different migratory and nesting characteristics, and among 17 ecoregions of the conterminous United States. We found large changes in avian abundances related to 100-year extreme weather events occurring in both breeding and post-fledging periods, but little support for an interaction among time periods. We also found that jointly-, rather than individually-occurring heat waves and droughts were both more common and more predictive of abundance changes. Declining abundance was the only significant response to post-fledging events, while responses to breeding period events were larger but could be positive or negative. Negative responses were especially frequent in the western U.S., and among ground-nesting birds and Neotropical migrants, with the largest single-season declines (36%) occurring among ground-nesting birds in the desert Southwest. These results indicate the importance of functional traits, timing, and geography in determining avian responses to weather extremes. Because dispersal to other regions appears to be an important avian response, it may be essential to maintain habitat refugia in a more climatically variable future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number12
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 23 2010


  • Birds (Aves)
  • Climate change
  • Drought
  • Extreme weather
  • Heat wave
  • Land surface temperature
  • Mixed effects models
  • North American Breeding Bird Survey
  • Standardized precipitation index
  • United States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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