Understanding the effects of landscape change and environmental variability on ecological processes is important for evaluating resource management policies, such as the emulation of natural forest disturbances. We analyzed time series of detection/nondetection data using hierarchical models in a Bayesian multi-model inference framework to decompose the dynamics of species distributions into responses to environmental variability, spatial variation in habitat conditions, and population dynamics and interspecific interactions, while correcting for observation errors and variation in sampling regimes. We modeled distribution dynamics of 14 waterbird species (broadly defined, including wetland and riparian species) using data from two different breeding bird surveys collected in the Boreal Shield ecozone within Ontario, Canada. Temporal variation in species occupancy (2000-2006) was primarily driven by climatic variability. Only two species showed evidence of consistent temporal trends in distribution: Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris) decreased, and Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) increased. The models had good predictive ability on independent data over time (1997-1999). Spatial variation in species occupancy was strongly related to the distribution of specific land cover types and habitat disturbance: Fire and forest harvesting influenced occupancy more than did roads, settlements, or mines. Bioclimatic and habitat heterogeneity indices and geographic coordinates exerted negligible influence on most species distributions. Estimated habitat suitability indices had good predictive ability on spatially independent data (Hudson Bay Lowlands ecozone). Additionally, we detected effects of interspecific interactions. Species responses to fire and forest harvesting were similar for 13 of 14 species; thus, forest-harvesting practices in Ontario generally appeared to emulate the effects of fire for waterbirds over timescales of 10-20 years. Extrapolating to all 84 waterbird species breeding on the Ontario Boreal Shield, however, suggested that up to 30 species may instead have altered (short-term) distribution dynamics due to forestry practices. Hence, natural disturbances are critical components of the ecology of the boreal forest and forest practices which aim to approximate them may succeed in allowing the maintenance of the associated species, but improved monitoring and modeling of large-scale boreal forest bird distribution dynamics will be necessary to resolve existing uncertainties, especially on less-common species.