Study reveals creepy way greedy seagulls decide what to eat

Ask anyone who lives on the UK coast and they will confirm that seagulls can be a nuisance. The theft of food by these birds knows no bounds, and no one is safe from one of their thieving attacks.

For many people, this behavior is the result of gulls’ inherent aggression. But in fact, seagulls like the herring gull are smarter than we think, especially in terms of their social skills.

These birds can pay attention to the behavior of others and use the information they gather to inform their food choices.

Herring-gulls thrive in modern urban areas. Urban gull colonies have begun to grow since European cities became 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 feeding, nesting and reproductive behavior.

As a scientist interested in animal cognition, I am fascinated by the intelligent behavior of gulls, which allows them to successfully forage for human food.

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

To build on this, my graduate students Franziska Feist and Kira Smith and I set out to find out if birds could not only track objects manipulated by humans, but also compare objects in their environment with those manipulated by humans.

The ability to compare objects and determine if they are identical implies a higher cognitive ability than simply keeping track of objects.

We placed two packs of different-colored Walkers chips on the ground a few meters from single or small groups of herring gulls on Brighton Beach.

We sat down on the sand and picked up a third bag of chips, the color of which matched one of the bags on the ground.

We then recorded the seagulls’ reactions to see if they chose, as expected, a bag of crisps the same color as the one in our hand.

Of the seagulls that pecked at chips, almost all (95 percent) pecked at a bag of chips that matched the color we were holding. This suggests that these gulls have the ability to identify and compare objects in their environment.

In addition, the gulls seemed to observe the food choices of others—in this case, specifically humans—and used the information they received to decide what to eat.

The number of approaches to us between adults and young birds (meaning any with brown plumage) did not differ significantly.

However, most of those who tried to steal one of the chips were adults.

About 86 percent of recorded pecks are adults, despite the fact that these birds make up only 46 percent of our entire sample.

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

Another plausible explanation is that young birds may have been deterred by competition from older birds, which they are more likely to lose.

Wide behavioral repertoire

Our findings are interesting because herring gulls did not evolve with humans. In fact, their urbanization began relatively recently – about 80 years ago.

This means that such behavior could not be the result of an innate ability that arose as a result of co-evolution or a long period of life near people. Rather, it must be the result of a broader, more general behavioral repertoire.

From a scientific point of view, this is interesting. Herring gulls appear to be an intelligent and versatile predator, successfully adapting to urban environments due to their powers of observation and flexibility.

However, for many people this can have quite negative consequences. Residents and visitors to coastal areas are often confronted with the impressive but annoying ability of these birds to observe, target and steal food directly from picnics, trash cans and people.

We hypothesize that these problems are probably related to more than just the fact that people feed the city gulls directly.

It seems that simply watching us eat something will make that particular food item and any similar foods in the vicinity more attractive to these birds.

It is this cognitive toolkit that will make tensions between humans and urban herring gulls difficult to manage.

However, our work is consistent with existing research, which suggests that only about a quarter of the UK’s urban gull population will actually attempt to steal food from humans. Less than a fifth of the seagulls we caught approached the chips when we were sitting next to each other.

However, any attempt to minimize conflict must go beyond scaring people away from feeding gulls and must take into account the exceptional observational abilities of these birds.

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

Paul Graham Professor of Neuroethology at the University of Sussex

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

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