Scotland's “clowns of the sky” are struggling and need the public’s help to try and survive.

Puffins, with their brightly coloured bills and eye markings, pale cheeks and distinctive waddle, are among the UK’s best-loved seabirds.

More than 80 per cent of the British and Irish breeding population can be found north of the Border, at locations such as St Kilda, Galloway, Wick and the Isle of May, in the Firth of Forth.

However, in recent years their numbers have plummeted, leading to the species being declared vulnerable to global extinction.

Rising sea temperatures, which affect food sources, are thought to be among the main threats.

Now the public is been urged to join a project to help save the birds for future generations.

RSPB leaders are asking for people who are locked down at home because of the coronavirus to become a “Puffarazzi” by submitting photographs of puffins with food in their mouths.

Their call comes as the birds return to UK coastlines to rear young. Experts said the images would help scientists learn more about what they are feeding their chicks, or “pufflings”, and how this might have changed over time.

Connie Tremlett, RSPB conservation scientist and manager of the project, said: “Scotland is a really important place for puffins; 80 per cent of the UK and Ireland population breed here, so it really is a stronghold for them.

“There are so many puffin colonies dotted around Scotland’s coastlines and islands and so we’re asking if people can dig out photos from their visits to them in previous years of these birds with food in their bills.

“We’ve been bowled over by how many people have already taken part in Puffarazzi – the response so far really shows how beloved these ‘clowns of the sea’ are, and how each and every one of us can play a part in saving them.”

The citizen science scheme was launched in 2017 to help find out what is causing population fluctuations across the UK.

It particularly focuses on differences in food availability related to climate change and warming seas.

Some 602 people joined the Puffarazzi in its first year and sent in 1,402 photos from almost 40 colonies, including the Isle of May, Lunga, in the Treshnish Isles in Argyll and Bute, and Fair Isle and Noss National Nature Reserve, both in Shetland.

Last year, 825 people sent 2,718 photographs from 49 locations, after the RSPB added a request for images from any year to help build a picture of how food sources might have altered over time.

Initial results from the project suggested some colonies in north Scotland were struggling to find an abundant supply of large, nutritious fish.

In Orkney and Shetland, where serious puffin declines have been seen, the birds appeared to be consistently finding smaller prey compared with other colonies.

Now, the project has been adapted to take the coronavirus guidance into account, with people asked to dig through photograph albums from previous visits to colonies.

“However old your photo is, as long as it has a picture of a puffin with food in its beak, and you know when and where it was taken, it will help,” said Ms Tremlett.

“Those who join the Puffarazzi are filling key gaps in our knowledge, helping us to understand what threats are facing these little seabirds.

“This is the first critical step to determining how to save them and ensure they return to our coasts for years to come.”

Young puffins’ lives hinge on whether their parents return with enough food. An abundant supply of large, nutritious fish such as sandeels, sprats and herrings is key to healthy colonies.

In 2017, after the RSPB said global puffin numbers had slumped, scientists predicted that, without help, more than half of the population could disappear within the next generation.

The previous year, it emerged tens of thousands of seabirds on St Kilda had starved to death.

Guillemot, fulmar and razorbill populations had fallen by up to 70 per cent between 1999 and 2015, with kittiwakes declining by nearly 90%.

At the time, environmentalists blamed the drop on food shortages caused by global warming.