Main content area

Rapid warming and drought negatively impact population size and reproductive dynamics of an avian predator in the arid southwest

Cruz‐McDonnell, Kirsten K., Wolf, Blair O.
Global change biology 2016 v.22 no.1 pp. 237-253
Athene cunicularia, adults, adverse effects, air temperature, birds, breeding, breeding sites, climate change, drought, dry environmental conditions, ecosystems, females, fledglings, heat, juveniles, males, nestlings, nests, population size, temperate zones, Southwestern United States
Avian communities of arid ecosystems may be particularly vulnerable to global climate change due to the magnitude of projected change for desert regions and the inherent challenges for species residing in resource limited ecosystems. How arid‐zone birds will be affected by rapid increases in air temperature and increased drought frequency and severity is poorly understood because avian responses to climate change have primarily been studied in the relatively mesic northern temperate regions. We studied the effects of increasing air temperature and aridity on a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) population in the southwestern United States from 1998 to 2013. Over 16 years, the breeding population declined 98.1%, from 52 pairs to 1 pair, and nest success and fledgling output also declined significantly. These trends were strongly associated with the combined effects of decreased precipitation and increased air temperature. Arrival on the breeding grounds, pair formation, nest initiation, and hatch dates all showed significant delays ranging from 9.4 to 25.1 days over 9 years, which have negative effects on reproduction. Adult and juvenile body mass decreased significantly over time, with a loss of 7.9% mass in adult males and 10.9% mass in adult females over 16 years, and a loss of 20.0% mass in nestlings over 8 years. Taken together, these population and reproductive trends have serious implications for local population persistence. The southwestern United States has been identified as a climate change hotspot, with projections of warmer temperatures, less winter precipitation, and an increase in frequency and severity of extreme events including drought and heat waves. An increasingly warm and dry climate may contribute to this species' decline and may already be a driving force of their apparent decline in the desert southwest.