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Extremes of heat, drought and precipitation depress reproductive performance in shortgrass prairie passerines

May 9, 2016

Climate change elevates conservation concerns worldwide because it is likely to exacerbate many identified threats to animal populations. In recent decades, grassland birds have declined faster than other North American bird species, a loss thought to be due to habitat loss and fragmentation and changing agricultural practices. Climate change poses additional threats of unknown magnitude to these already declining populations. We examined how seasonal and daily weather conditions over 10 years influenced nest survival of five species of insectivorous passerines native to the shortgrass prairie and evaluate our findings relative to future climate predictions for this region. Daily nest survival (n = 870) was best predicted by a combination of daily and seasonal weather variables, age of nest, time in season and bird habitat guild. Within a season, survival rates were lower on very hot days (temperatures ≥ 35 °C), on dry days (with a lag of 1 day) and on stormy days (especially for those species nesting in shorter vegetation). Across years, survival rates were also lower during warmer and drier breeding seasons. Clutch sizes were larger when early spring temperatures were cool and the week prior to egg-laying was wetter and warming. Climate change is likely to exacerbate grassland bird population declines because projected climate conditions include rising temperatures, more prolonged drought and more intense storms as the hydrological cycle is altered. Under varying realistic scenarios, nest success estimates were halved compared to their current average value when models both increased the temperature (3 °C) and decreased precipitation (two additional dry days during a nesting period), thus underscoring a sense of urgency in identifying and addressing the current causes of range-wide declines.