There is an island in Iceland where every year people help baby “pufflings,” the offspring of a megacolony of more than 1 million puffins, find their wings and fly out to sea. Cheryl Katz follows along as residents young and old participate in this time-honored ritual. In the face of climate change, their work is more important than ever:

On their first flight after leaving the burrow, some young birds get confused by the lights of the town and head inland instead of out to sea. Puffins are amazing swimmers, able to dive up to 200 feet deep, thanks to bones that are dense—unlike the light, airy bones of most birds. But that makes it harder for them to take flight. At sea, the water provides a runway; in the colonies, they can launch from cliffs and catch a breeze. When pufflings land on the streets, however, their new wings are too weak to get them aloft from the flat ground, leaving them vulnerable to cars, predators and starvation.

That’s where Sigrún Anna and Rakel come in. They’re part of the Puffling Patrol, a Heimaey volunteer brigade tasked with shepherding little puffins on their journey. Every year during the roughly monthlong fledging season, kids here get to stay up very late. On their own or with parents, on foot or by car, they roam the town peeking under parked vehicles, behind stacks of bins at the fish-processing plants, inside equipment jumbled at the harbor. The stranded young birds tend to take cover in tight spots. Flushing them out and catching them is the perfect job for nimble young humans. But the whole town joins in, even the police.

No one knows exactly when the tradition started. Lifelong resident Svavar Steingrímsson, 86, did it when he was young. He thinks the need arose when electric lights came to Heimaey in the early 1900s. Saving the young birds likely began as “a mix of sport and humanity,” Steingrímsson tells me in Icelandic translated by his grandson, Sindri Ólafsson.