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Mentored research student saves the birds

For the past four months, recent BYU graduate Emma Houghton (‘21) has been raising young seabird chicks that are at great risk for extinction in Hawaii.

“Hawaii is home for me,” Houghton says. “Growing up, I was in love with the diversity of plants and wildlife.”

When Houghton returned from an LDS mission in 2018, she already knew that she wanted to participate in bio-conservation. She began volunteering at her local national wildlife refuge that same year. From this experience, she discovered Pacific Rim Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the biodiversity of native Hawaiian birds, and has spent time in New Zealand and Hawaii researching the migration of shorebirds. Since then, she has helped translocate over a hundred native seabirds.

Houghton credits her passion for bird biodiversity to her volunteering experience. She enjoys carrying that passion into her plant and wildlife studies at BYU.

In the winter semester of 2021, Houghton joined a team of bio-conservationists to rebuild a seabird colony on Oahu. Her current research involves the relocation of seabird chicks whose nests are vulnerable to rising sea levels and high tides. The team is currently relocating the native Black-footed Albatross and Bonin Petrel.

“These seabirds nest right on the beach where king tides and storm surges sweep chicks out to sea or drown chicks in burrows,” she explains. 

“Sea-level rise impacts these species' mortality yearly and eventually will impact the entire colony on these islands, forcing them to look for a new home.”

The 20th century global surge in sea levels is largely credited to global warming; causing polar ice melt from glaciers and ice sheets, and a voluminous expansion of water due to rising temperatures. For seabirds such as these, a rising tide encroaches on shoreline nesting burrows that were previously untouched by ocean waves. Consequently, Houghton and her team remove bird chicks from their endangered nests on Midway Atoll—a group of tiny islands near Hawaii—and raise them on a new colony site on Oahu. Midway Atoll is a wildlife refuge that is home to albatrosses and other native birds, but the rising tides have made even the refuge a danger to the species.

For her research, Houghton was awarded a College Undergraduate Research Award (CURA) grant by BYU, so she can continue her seabird rehabilitation efforts. Her favorite part of it all is watching the baby chicks she has raised return to the colony site when they are grown to find potential mates and build their own nests.

“With efforts of these translocated chicks, social attraction, and efforts to keep unwanted predators from the area, the seabird population has blossomed,” Houghton explains, adding that other seabird species that were not brought to the site by conservationists have begun migrating to the area.

“The birds we translocate from Midway Atoll were historically found on Oahu, but they were driven out by human presence and introduced predators,” Houghton says. “Now these species are given a second chance to repopulate land that used to be their home.”