Atlantic puffins flap their wings 400 times a minute while flying. (Bill Scholtz)

Meet the mysterious birds nicknamed “the clowns of the sea” or “sea parrots.”

Puffins certainly are cute and funny as they waddle about on land, but we know very little about them. That’s because puffins are “pelagic” birds, meaning they live most of the year at sea.

What we know about puffins

Puffins return each year to the same coastal nesting sites where they hatched. They mate for life and can live for more than 20 years.

It takes an enormous amount of energy to be a puffin. Their short wings beat about 400 times a minute and help propel puffins deep into the ocean to catch the small fish they love to eat. Sticky spines in their mouths allow puffins to carry 10 or more fish at one time — a real timesaver!

Atlantic puffins can carry as many as 10 fish in its mouth at a time. (Bill Scholtz)

Female puffins have one chick a year, which both parents help raise. At about 6 weeks old, the chicks — pufflings — head out to sea at night to avoid predators, leaving their parents behind. (What could you do when you were 6 weeks old?) These pufflings won’t return home for two years.

Are all puffins the same? No. In the United States, tufted and horned puffins are seen in the northern Pacific Ocean. Atlantic puffins are found along Maine’s coast.

Atlantic puffins, at about 10 to 12 inches tall, are the smallest and have blue patches on their bills. Tufted puffins are the largest at 16 inches tall and have blond feathers on their heads during breeding season. Horned puffins don’t have horns but a black line extending upward from each eye — making them look as if they’ve been playing with Mom’s makeup.

Because of hunting, egg-collecting and predators, Atlantic puffins were almost extinct along Maine’s coast in the late 1800s. Thanks to hard work by scientists, there are now hundreds of pairs living in protected areas on Maine islands.

So, why are they mysterious?

For about eight months of the year, puffins seem to disappear. Scientists have long wondered where puffins go between August and March.

Researchers with the Audubon Society’s Project Puffin recently developed a small geotracking device — about the size of a dime — that attaches to a puffin’s leg. It doesn’t let scientists see where the puffin is all the time, but it records light and time. The puffin tracker must be removed from the bird’s leg in order to get information that helps researchers plot the course the puffin flew.

Eight Atlantic puffins got these trackers in 2009, but information from only two has been retrieved so far. (It’s hard to recapture a puffin.)

Researchers found that one puffin, Cabot, traveled 4,800 miles! He went north from Maine to the Labrador Sea, then south toward Bermuda and back to Maine. That’s a lot of wing-flapping!

Why is this important to know?

Stephen Kress of the Audubon Society said, “Puffins, like all seabirds, tell us about the health of the ocean.” For example, the fact that Cabot headed further north one January might mean he was seeking better fishing, to fatten up for the winter.

Where puffins go and what they do at sea “ . . . is more complicated than we ever imagined,” Kress said. Learning more will help us protect them in their different habitats. “There’s a lot more for you to discover,” he said to KidsPost readers.

— Ann Cameron Siegal