Research reveals the creepy way greedy seagulls decide what to eat

Ask anyone who lives in a UK coastal area and they’ll confirm that seagulls can be a nuisance. These birds’ food theft knows no bounds, and no one is safe from one of their theft attacks.

For many people, this behavior is a result of seagulls’ inherent aggressiveness. But in reality, gulls like the silver gull are smarter than we think, especially in terms of social skills.

These birds are able to pay attention to the behavior of others and use the information they gather to inform their own foraging choices.

Silver Gulls thrive in modern urban areas. Urban gull colonies have taken off since making European cities their home in the mid-20th century, despite a general decline in the overall gull population.

As a species, they have also shown great flexibility in their diet, nesting and reproductive behavior.

As a scientist interested in animal cognition, I am fascinated by the intelligent behavior that allows gulls to successfully feed on human food.

Research has shown that urban gulls adapt their foraging behavior to human activity patterns, increase their attention to a person in possession of food, and prefer food that has been touched by a person over food that has not.

To build on this, my master’s students Franziska Feist and Kiera Smith and I set out to find out whether birds could not only track objects handled by humans, but also compare objects in their environment with those handled by a person.

The ability to compare objects and identify whether they are identical implies a greater cognitive ability than tracking objects alone.

fast learners

We place two packets of differently colored Walkers crisps on the ground a few feet away from one or small groups of silver gulls on Brighton beach.

We sat on the sand and held a third packet of chips that matched the color of any of the packets on the ground.

We then recorded the seagulls’ response to see if, hypothetically, they would choose the bag of chips that matched the color of what we had in hand.

Of the gulls that pecked at the potato chip packets, nearly all (95 percent) did so with the potato chip packet that matched the one we were holding. This suggests that these gulls have the ability to identify and compare objects in their surroundings.

Furthermore, the seagulls seemed to observe the foraging choices of other people – specifically people in this case – and use the information they gained to decide what to eat.

The number of approaches towards us did not differ significantly between adult and juvenile birds (ie any with brown plumage).

However, the majority who tried to steal one of the snack packs were adults.

About 86% of recorded pecking came from adults, despite these birds representing only 46% of our entire sample.

This suggests that stealing food requires a certain level of daring and skill that most young birds lack.

Another plausible explanation is that the young birds may have been deterred by competition with the adult birds, which they are likely to lose.

Broad behavioral repertoire

Our findings are interesting because silver gulls did not evolve with humans. In fact, its urbanization only started relatively recently – around 80 years ago.

This means that this behavior cannot have come from an innate ability resulting from co-evolution or a long period of living with humans. Rather, it should be the result of a broader and more general behavioral repertoire.

From a scientific point of view, this is fascinating. It appears that the silver gull is an intelligent and versatile predator that has successfully adapted to urban environments due to its observation skills and behavioral flexibility.

However, for many people, this can have some pretty negative implications. Coastal residents and visitors often experience these birds’ impressive but irritating ability to observe, target, and steal food from picnics, dumpsters, and people directly.

We suggest that these problems likely stem from more than people directly feeding the urban gulls.

It seems that simply watching us eat something will make that specific food and any similar items nearby more attractive to these birds.

It is this set of cognitive tools that will make it difficult to manage the tension between humans and urban gulls.

Our work, however, agrees with existing studies which suggest that only around a quarter of the UK’s urban gull population will actually attempt to steal food from a person. Less than one-fifth of the seagulls we sampled approached the crisp packets when we were sitting nearby.

Regardless, any attempt to minimize conflict must go beyond preventing people from feeding the gulls and must take into account the exceptional observation skills of these birds.

What is clear, however, is that we cannot just rely on signs insisting that people “don’t feed the birds”.

Paul Graham, Professor of Neuroethology, University of Sussex

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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