Aim Individually focused conservation management of many species is expensive and logistically impractical. Mesofilter conservation methods may facilitate the simultaneous management of multiple species. We used data on distributions of two sets of avian guilds, based on dependence on riparian vegetation and on nest location, to relate occurrence rates to environmental variables. Variables were selected by expert opinion and are likely to be affected by changes in climate and land use. Location Data were collected from 2001–06 in four adjacent mountain ranges in the central Great Basin (Lander, Nye and Eureka counties, Nevada, USA): the Shoshone Mountains and the Toiyabe, Toquima and Monitor ranges. Methods Data on occurrence of birds, vegetation composition and vegetation structure were obtained in the field. Geographical coordinates and the normalized difference vegetation index were derived from a digital elevation model and a satellite image. To construct a general model for guilds as a whole, while allowing flexibility for variation in the functional responses of individual species, we applied multivariate adaptive regression splines. Results The predictive capacity of expert knowledge of relationships between birds and vegetation was inconsistent. Latitude, longitude and elevation may constrain the response of some guilds to changes in vegetation structure and composition. Guild-based models were useful for modelling species with sparse distributions, which are difficult to model individually. In essence, this method supplements models for the individual species with patterns for the guild to which they belong. Main conclusions Guilds of birds appeared to have predictable associations with selected attributes of vegetation structure and composition. The criteria by which species are grouped into guilds may affect the success of predictions and management interventions. Our derived models offer the potential to predict effects on the avifauna of management or climate-driven change in vegetation.