Population Ecology


, Volume 142, Issue 3, pp 398-406

First online:

Avian reproductive failure in response to an extreme climatic event

  • Douglas T. BolgerAffiliated withEnvironmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College Email author 
  • , Michael A. PattenAffiliated withEnvironmental Studies Program, Dartmouth CollegeSutton Avian Research Center and Department of Zoology, University of Oklahoma
  • , David C. BostockAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Dartmouth College

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Recently, climate change research has emphasized the potential increase in the frequency and severity of climatic extremes. We compared the reproductive effort and output among four species of passerine birds in coastal southern California, USA, a semi-arid region, during a normal precipitation year (2001) and the driest year in a 150-year climate record (2002). Both reproductive effort and output differed dramatically between years. Mean reproductive output among the four species was 2.37 fledglings/pair in 2001 and 88.4% of all pairs observed attempted at least one nest. The birds attempted a mean of 1.44 nests per pair and were successful in 47.7% of those attempts. In 2002, only 6.7% of the pairs even attempted a nest and only 1.8% were successful, for a total output of 0.07 fledglings per pair. The abundance of suitable arthropod prey items in the environment was also much lower in 2002, suggesting that low food availability was the proximal cause of the reproductive failure. The data for one of these species, the rufous-crowned sparrow (Aimophila ruficeps), were combined with reproductive and rainfall data from a previous 3-year study (1997–1999) in the same sites. The combined data sets suggest that the response of reproduction to rainfall variation is linear, and that the low end of the precipitation range brings the population near reproductive failure. Any change in climate that would increase the frequency of extreme dry conditions would likely endanger populations of these species.


Bottom-up Climate change Climate extremes ENSO Reproductive failure