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  1. Warming temperatures cause temporal changes in growing seasons and prey abundance that drive earlier breeding by birds, especially dietary specialists within homogeneous habitat. Less is known about how generalists respond to climate-associated shifts in growing seasons or prey phenology, which may occur at different rates across land cover types.
  2. We studied whether breeding phenology of a generalist predator, the American kestrel (Falco sparverius), was associated with shifts in growing seasons and, presumably, prey abundance, in a mosaic of non-irrigated shrub/grasslands and irrigated crops/pastures. We examined the relationship between remotely-sensed normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and abundance of small mammals that, with insects, constitute approximately 93% of kestrel diet biomass. We used NDVI to estimate the start of the growing season (SoGS) in irrigated and non-irrigated lands from 1992 to 2015 and tested whether either estimate of annual SoGS predicted the timing of kestrel nesting. Finally, we examined relationships among irrigated SoGS, weather and crop planting.
  3. NDVI was a useful proxy for kestrel prey because it predicted small mammal abundance and past studies showed that NDVI predicts insect abundance. NDVI-estimated SoGS advanced significantly in irrigated lands (β = −1·09 ± 0·30 SE) but not in non-irrigated lands (β = −0·57 ± 0·53). Average date of kestrel nesting advanced 15 days in the past 24 years and was positively associated with the SoGS in irrigated lands, but not the SoGS in non-irrigated lands. Advanced SoGS in irrigated lands was related to earlier planting of crops after relatively warm winters, which were more common in recent years.
  4. Despite different patterns of SoGS change between land cover types, kestrel nesting phenology shifted with earlier prey availability in irrigated lands. Kestrels may preferentially track prey in irrigated lands over non-irrigated lands because of higher quality prey on irrigated lands, or earlier prey abundance may release former constraints on other selective pressures to breed early, such as seasonal declines in fecundity or competition for high-quality mates.
  5. This is one of the first examples of an association between human adaptation to climate change and shifts in breeding phenology of wildlife.

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This document was originally published in Journal of Animal Ecology by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of the British Ecological Society. This work is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 license. Details regarding the use of this work can be found at: doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12604

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