Gulls and human food: it’s what they prefer

Published: March 19, 2020

Boy with ice cream on beach with gulls around Photo by caseyjadew/Shutterstock

What is it with gulls and human food?

It had been a late night, watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds on the only television channel we got at our cottage on Lake Huron.

The following morning, I made myself a piece of toast and nibbled it as I walked to the beach.

I had barely set foot on the sand when they gathered. Screeching and flapping. Birds! (Gulls, specifically, but it hardly mattered.)

I threw my toast in the air and ran back to the cottage, where I remained inside until I could get my heart rate back to normal.

I should have known better. Anyone who has been to the beach or, for that matter, walked an urban boardwalk along a waterway, knows that there’s a connection between gulls and human food, that gulls are interested in little more than whatever it is you’re currently eating.

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Madeleine Goumas, a Ph.D. student in zoology at the University of Exeter in the U.K., became intrigued by gull behaviour when her apartment in Cornwall provided a clear view of some urban herring gulls—those are the ubiquitous grey and white seabirds—that were nesting on a nearby roof.

She became curious about other gull behaviour she’d noticed—specifically, she says, “no one had actually studied whether gulls may be choosing to take food from people because they may be paying attention to the human gaze.” In other words, Goumas wanted to know: do gulls want food or do they want our food?

Goumas’ research, which was published in Royal Society Open Science, involved approaching gulls at rest while carrying two identical plastic-wrapped oat bars in two identical buckets. She would handle one of the oat bars for 20 seconds and mimic eating it. Then she would place both cereal bars down on the buckets an equal distance apart and walk away. The bars were weighed down so the gulls couldn’t make off with them.

Her sample group consisted of 38 gulls. A few ignored her and the food. [Ed. note: who are these mythical gulls that ignore food?] But, of the 24 gulls that did peck at the food, 79 per cent (19 gulls) chose the food that she had handled.

Goumas and fellow researchers then tried using blue sponges, cut into the same size and shape as the oat bars, to see if the gulls prefer any object handled by humans or just food objects. They moved to a different location to ensure that they were looking at, most likely, different gulls. This time, the gulls pecked at the sponges in numbers considered to be statistical chance. The researchers concluded that gulls have a preference for food that has been handled by humans and that they may have learned, through experience, that plastic-wrapped items frequently contain food.

Goumas, for one, likes herring gulls and thinks their status as annoying is unfair.

“Most negative interactions with herring gulls can be avoided or minimized,” she says. She notes that there’s plenty to admire about the gulls, including that most pairs we see are bonded adults that remain together to raise chicks. Besides, “pinching some food doesn’t seem like the worst thing an animal can do. Dogs do it all the time.”

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