Staring at seagulls makes them less likely to steal your food, a new study – and these videos – suggest.
When researchers from the University of Exeter, UK, tried to lure herring gulls by putting a bag of chips on the ground, the birds took 21 seconds longer, on average, to approach the food with a human staring at them.
Some were completely put off.
“Gulls are often seen as aggressive and willing to take food from humans, so it was interesting to find that most wouldn’t even come near during our tests,” says lead author Madeleine Goumas.
It must be acknowledged that it was just a small study and that gulls are pretty unreliable participants. Only 27 of 74 “volunteers” would approach at all, and of these only 19 completed both tests.
Nevertheless, the results are interesting, Goumas says, because they highlight that gulls aren’t all the same and that most are actually wary of people.
“We didn’t examine why individual gulls were so different: it might be because of differences in personality and some might have had positive experiences of being fed by humans in the past,” she says. “But it seems that a couple of very bold gulls might ruin the reputation of the rest.”
Herring gulls are in decline in the UK, though numbers in urban areas are rising. Gulls in these areas are often considered a nuisance because of behaviours like food-snatching.
The researchers say their study suggests people might be able to reduce the problem by modifying their behaviour to deter few bold individuals.
What they now want to know is what eating all this human food is doing to them.
The findings are published in the journal Biology Letters.
Nick Carne is editor of Cosmos digital and editorial manager for The Royal Institution of Australia.
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