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The real reason Cornish seagulls steal our food...

The real reason Cornish seagulls steal our food...

Published by Emma Carton at 3:49pm 26th February 2020.

The reason Cornwall's seagulls steal our food might be quite simple - they like snacks handled by humans first!

Herring gulls were presented with two identical food items – one of which they had seen a human holding.

The gulls pecked more often at the handled food, suggesting they use human actions when deciding what to eat.

The study from the University of Exeter follows previous research which found that staring at greedy gulls makes them less likely to swoop on our food!

seagull in st ives
A study carried out in Cornwall has revealed seagulls steal our food because they like snacks handled by humans first.

What is the science behind the study?

The study was carried out in Cornish towns including Falmouth and Penzance.

A researcher approached individual gulls and placed two buckets on the ground in front of them, each covering a wrapped flapjack.

The buckets were then removed and the researcher picked up one of the flapjacks, handled it for 20 seconds, and then put it back down on the ground.

In total, 38 gulls were tested. 24 pecked at one of the flapjacks and 19 of these (79%) chose the one that had been handled.

To see if gulls were responding to human handling alone, the experiment was repeated with two non-food items – sponges that were cut into the same size and shape as the flapjacks.

In this case, gulls’ preference for the handled sponge did not exceed “chance levels” – suggesting that handling draws their attention to food in particular.

“Our findings suggest that gulls are more likely to approach food that they have seen people drop or put down, so they may associate areas where people are eating with an easy meal.

“This highlights the importance of disposing of food waste properly, as inadvertently feeding gulls reinforces these associations.

“Herring gulls have a generalist diet that typically includes fish and invertebrates, but they will also consume food found in landfill sites and household waste.

“The effect of this shift in food quality and quantity away from more ‘natural’ sources is not yet clear.

“Herring gulls are quite adaptable and are likely to be moving into urban areas because of the resources available.

“For example, there are lots of suitable nesting sites, and a ready supply of food.

“Urban environments may also be able to support larger gull populations, meaning that competition among individuals for resources is lower than in rural coastal colonies".

Senior Author, Dr Laura Kelley

Research from the University of Exeter found almost 80% of the birds tested with flapjacks picked the ones touched by humans first.

The paper, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, is entitled: “Urban herring gulls use human behavioural cues to locate food".

“UK herring gull numbers are declining, but urban populations have increased.

“Despite the fact they’re a common sight in many towns, little is known about urban gull behaviour.

“We wanted to find out if gulls are simply attracted by the sight of food, or if people’s actions can draw gulls’ attention towards an item.

“Our study shows that cues from humans may play an important part in the way gulls find food, and could partly explain why gulls have been successful in colonising urban areas".

Madeleine Goumas, Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the Penryn Campus

So there you have it - guard the food you have handled and if all else fails, give the gulls a good stare!

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