Seagulls Like Food Better if Humans Touch It First

A seagull eats a discarded piece of bread on the beach. Pan_Da/Shutterstock

It never fails. You're enjoying a lovely day at the beach or along the pier and as soon as you so much as eat a cracker, a seagull is in your face. And sometimes they bring a slew of friends to share in the bounty. What is it about these birds that are always looking for a human handout?

Researchers at the University of Exeter in the U.K. were curious whether gulls are drawn solely to the food or if they're watching what people are doing with it.

"Despite the fact they're a common sight in many towns, little is known about urban gull behavior. We wanted to find out if gulls are simply attracted by the sight of food, or if people's actions can draw gulls' attention towards an item," said lead researcher Madeleine Goumas in a statement.

"Our study shows that cues from humans may play an important part in the way gulls find food, and could partly explain why gulls have been successful in colonizing urban areas."

Goumas devised an experiment with food and herring gulls. According to The Cornell Lab's All About Birds, herring gulls are "the quintessential gray-and-white, pink-legged 'seagulls.'"

Goumas approached resting birds while carrying two plastic-wrapped flapjacks — a type of oat bar — in black buckets. She took both food items out of the bucket and placed them on the ground. Then she would pick up one of the flapjacks and handle it for 20 seconds, holding it toward her face as if eating it. Then she would place them both on the ground an equal distance apart and walk away.

Out of the 38 gulls tested, a few ignored her completely. But of the 24 that pecked at the food, 19 of them (79%) chose the one that she had handled first.

Goumas and her team then repeated the experiment using blue sponges that were cut into the same size and shape as the flapjacks. They used different locations so they could be reasonably sure that the gulls would be different and hadn't already been tested before.

This time around, of the 23 gulls that pecked at the sponges, 15 of them opted for the one that hadn't been handled, which isn't statistically different than what is expected by chance. The researchers speculate that gulls are particularly drawn to food that has been handled by humans. They also may have learned, in their experience, that items covered in plastic wrapping often tend to be food-related.

The results were published in the journal the Royal Society Open Science.

Why it matters

Seagulls and pigeons hang out along a bridge in Ireland, scavenging for a free meal.
Seagulls and pigeons hang out along a bridge in Ireland, hoping for a free meal. jenniferdurann/

The researchers point out that many species are impacted in a negative way by urbanization. Their habitats dwindle and they lose food sources.

But gulls have found a way to thrive, living on a smorgasbord of scavenged meal choices discarded by humans. While these birds have been able to successfully exploit urban environments, they're probably not the only ones.

"It is highly unlikely that herring gulls are the only wild animals to use human behavioral cues in urban areas. As urbanization increases, more wild animals will come into contact with humans and anthropogenic items. There may be an increased number of incidences of individuals of certain species displaying problematic behavior, which can create conflicts between human activity and conservation," the researchers write.

"Additionally, although purposeful provisioning of wildlife may in certain cases appear to be beneficial (such as the feeding of garden birds), being attracted to anthropogenic items and feeding on anthropogenic food can be harmful for wildlife. A more comprehensive understanding of the cues that cause wild animals to engage in interactions with humans is likely to be key in developing preventative measures that not only reduce negative encounters for humans but also potentially lessen the impact of anthropogenic items on wild animal populations."

And as far as gulls, they will continue to flock to areas where they know they can get free food.

"Our findings suggest that gulls are more likely to approach food that they have seen people drop or put down, so they may associate areas where people are eating with an easy meal," said senior author Dr. Laura Kelley.

"This highlights the importance of disposing of food waste properly, as inadvertently feeding gulls reinforces these associations."