Worried about how to protect your seaside chips from pesky seagulls? Scientists believe the answer lies in an old-fashioned stare down.
The would-be feathered thieves are more likely to strike when they can swoop in under the radar, avoiding the gaze of their victims, researchers say. So staring at the birds makes them less likely to attempt a steal, according to the study.
University of Exeter researchers put a bag of chips on the ground and tested how long it took herring gulls to approach when someone was watching them, then compared this to how long it took when the person looked away. (Are we sure this was really a study day, team?)
On average, the gulls took 21 seconds longer to approach the food they often cheekily swipe from unsuspecting snackers while they were being stared at.
The researchers attempted the test with 74 gulls, but most of the birds flew away or would not approach. Only 27 approached the food, and 19 completed both the “looking at” and “looking away” tests. The findings focus on these 19.
Lead author Madeleine Goumas, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter’s Penryn Campus, said: “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.”
“We are seeing more gulls looking for an easy meal.”
Of those that did approach, said Goumas, most took longer when they were being watched: “Some wouldn’t even touch the food at all, although others didn’t seem to notice that a human was staring at them.”
The team did not look into why individual birds behaved differently, said Goumas, but it may be down to previous positive experiences of being fed by humans.
“A couple of very bold gulls might ruin the reputation of the rest,” she added.
“Gulls learn really quickly,” added senior author Dr Neeltje Boogert, “so if they manage to get food from humans once, they might look for more. Our study took place in coastal towns in Cornwall, and especially now, during the summer holidays and beach barbecues, we are seeing more gulls looking for an easy meal.”
Boogert advised people to keep a look out for for gulls approaching “as they often appear to take food from behind, catching people by surprise”. It seems that just watching the gulls will reduce the chance of them snatching your food.”
And it’s not just while you’re on holiday – the researchers say that UK herring gulls are in decline, but numbers in urban areas are rising, so city dwellers, watch out. The study is published in the journal Biology Letters.