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The Scientists Who Stared at Gulls

A new study suggests that watching the birds as they approach will slow them down or scare them off

(University of Exeter)
smithsonian.com

A day at the beach isn’t so sunny if a gull steals your ice cream. In some places, aggressive gulls are a real problem, nabbing sandwiches, French fries and any other summer snack they can get their beaks on. But a new study suggests there might be one simple trick to keeping gulls away from your Cheetos: stare them down.

Iliana Magra at the New York Times reports that aggressive gulls have been a problem in Great Britain for a long time. (Do not call them “seagulls” or you will earn the wrath of the birdwatching world. There are dozens of species of gulls and some do not live by the sea.) It’s illegal to kill gulls or disturb their nests in the United Kingdom, so towns and businesses have tried to control the problem with several tactics, including asking people not to feed the birds, telling them to carry umbrellas while eating and putting up wires to discourage roosting—all to no avail. That’s because the birds are naturally kleptoparasitic scavengers, meaning one of their feeding strategies is to steal food from other animals.

As much as people dislike interacting with the birds, encountering humans has not been good for them either. According to a press release, the population of coastal European herring gulls is on the decline in Great Britain, dropping by 60 percent between 1969 and 2015. Most of that decrease is due to habitat changes caused by humans. (They are, however, increasing in urban areas.) As a result, the birds are beginning to move from the cliffs and islets, where they traditionally hunt small fish, to urban buildings, where they hunt stray French fries and exposed bagels.

That’s one reason researchers from the University of Exeter decided to investigate ways of keeping the birds at bay. Their study appears in the journal Biology Letters.

To attract the birds, the researchers visited coastal sites in Cornwall where they set out a clear freezer bag filled with a half pound of French fries, then waited for a herring gull to to take the bait. When the bird approached the bag, the researcher stared it in the eyes, timing how long it took the bird to make it to the salty, greasy jackpot. In total, 74 birds noticed the bag, but only 27 approached it. Of that, only 19 actually engaged in the test, walking toward the unguarded fries.

The reaction of the gulls to the stare was varied. In some cases, the birds ignored the human gaze and pecked the bag immediately. Six of the birds were completely spooked and never made it to the bag. On average, the birds being stared at took longer to reach the bag, about 25 seconds, rather than 13 seconds when the human observer was looking away.

According to the press release, the study suggests that most herring gulls are scared of humans, and that it’s just a small minority of bold birds that cause problems. Treating all gulls alike, they write, is futile. Instead, they say people should try and stare down those aggressive gulls when they attack their next beach party.

“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,” says the study’s senior author Neeltje Boogert of the University of Exeter in the release. “We therefore advise people to look around themselves and watch out 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.”

But that’s easier said than done. Viola Ross-Smith, a spokesperson for the British Trust for Ornithology, tells the New York Times’ Magra that the gulls see humans as large dangerous animals, so they try to be sneaky. “They are more likely to surprise you; they are more likely to attack from behind,” she says. “It can feel like an attack to a person, but they are not really attacks, just a bird feeding.”

Which means when you're at the beach, it always pays to occasionally turn around and throw out an icy stare—just in case you’re being bird-stalked.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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