Variation in population dynamics is inherently related to life history characteristics of species, which vary markedly even within phylogenetic groups such as passerine birds. We computed the finite rate of population change (??) from a matrix projection model and from mark-recapture observations for 23 bird species breeding in northern Arizona. We used sensitivity analyses and a simulation model to separate contributions of different life history traits to population growth rate. In particular we focused on contrasting effects of components of reproduction (nest success, clutch size, number of clutches, and juvenile survival) versus adult survival on ??. We explored how changes in nest success or adult survival coupled to costs in other life history parameters affected ?? over a life history gradient provided by our 23 Arizona species, as well as a broader sample of 121 North American passerine species. We further examined these effects for more than 200 passeriform and piciform populations breeding across North America. Model simulations indicate nest success and juvenile survival exert the largest effects on population growth in species with moderate to high reproductive output, whereas adult survival contributed more to population growth in long-lived species. Our simulations suggest that monitoring breeding success in populations across a broad geographic area provides an important index for identifying neotropical migratory populations at risk of serious population declines and a potential method for identifying large-scale mechanisms regulating population dynamics. ?? 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.