Aerial insectivores (birds that forage on aerial insects) have experienced significant population declines in North America. Numerous hypotheses have been proposed for these declines, but current evidence suggests multiple factors could be operating in combination during their annual migratory cycles between breeding and nonbreeding areas. Potential drivers include decreased prey abundance, direct or indirect impacts of environmental contaminants, habitat loss, phenological changes due to warming climate, and conditions on migratory stopover or wintering grounds. While no single threat appears to be the cause of aerial insectivore declines, existing evidence suggests that several of these factors could be contributing to the declines at different times in the annual lifecycle. Breeding productivity for most of these species does not appear to be limited by overall prey abundance, contaminants, or habitat loss, which suggests that similar issues on nonbreeding grounds or carryover effects could play important roles. However, a better understanding of the importance of prey quality throughout the lifecycle is critically needed. Based on current evidence, we propose that changes in availability of high-quality prey, with variability across breeding and nonbreeding grounds, reduce various combinations of fledging success, post-fledging survival, and nonbreeding season body condition of aerial insectivores, resulting in species and geographic differences in population trends. We encourage others to use this hypothesis as a starting point to test specific mechanisms by which availability of high-quality prey influences demographic parameters. We suggest that future research focus on defining prey quality, monitoring insect abundance in conjunction with birds, comparing demographic models across local populations experiencing different population growth rates, and using tracking technology to document important migratory and nonbreeding areas. Considerable research progress already has been made, but additional research is needed to better understand the complex web of potential causes driving aerial insectivore declines.
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Vol. 121 • No. 2