It will take more than a bunch of signs declaring “do not feed the birds” to deter gulls from swooping down to pinch people’s snacks, a study has suggested.
Research on herring gulls at Brighton beach found that the birds can work out which kinds of scraps are worth snaffling by watching what humans are tucking into themselves.
When given a choice of crisp packets to peck at, gulls overwhelmingly went for the same colour bag that an experimenter was munching from as they filmed the encounters from several metres away.
“We have shown that adult seagulls can pay attention to human behaviour and use that information to make their foraging decisions,” Franziska Fies, the first author of the study and a biologist at the University of Sussex said.
“Given that the urbanisation of gulls is very recent, this ability must come from the gulls’ general smartness and behavioural flexibility.”
Scientists already knew that gulls prefer food that has been touched by people, but it was unclear how well they could draw on their observations of snacking humans to find similar bits of food while foraging.
In the latest work, Feist and her colleagues taped green (salt and vinegar) and blue (cheese and onion) packets of Walkers crisps to tiles and placed them a few metres from gulls on an otherwise clear patch of Brighton beach. The scientists then retreated 5 metres and filmed the birds’ behaviour. The researchers in some instances looked straight at the camera while others ate a bag of green or blue crisps.
When the scientists sat quietly without snacking, less than a fifth of gulls approached the crisp packets placed nearby. When the scientists were eating crisps, 48% gulls hopped to the packets. Nearly 40% of such approaches ended with gulls pecking at the crisp packets, and of these, a hefty 95% were directed at the same colour packet as the scientist was eating from. Feist said, “It’s impressive because evolution of the herring gulls would not have included humans.”
The research suggests there’s work to be done to reduce tension between urban gulls and humans. The impact of “do not feed the birds” signs might, for example, be improved by adding “… and don’t let them see you eat, either”.
“It is likely that simply deterring the public from directly feeding gulls may not be enough,” Feist said. “They are still able to observe what we eat and that would inform their ability to target waste, litter and so on.”
Dr Madeleine Goumas, an expert on herring gulls at Exeter University who was not involved in the study, said: “We already know from previous research that gulls use information from people when they’re searching for food.
“This study shows that we aren’t only drawing gulls’ attention to where food is, but they also learn about the type of food we’re eating. Knowing this may have implications for how we reduce negative interactions between humans and gulls, as we seem to be inadvertently teaching gulls to exploit new food items.”
Details of the study are published in Biology Letters.
The article Gulls select food by watching people, study shows first appeared on The Guardian .