There’s nothing that ruins a sunset walk on the boardwalk like a flock of greedy seagulls circling your funnel cake. Before you start to imagine yourself under attack in a sea of Hitchcock-esque pecks and flapping wings, remember that science has your back. New research has a strategy for protecting your food next time you’re at the beach. Just give them your best death stare.
The feathered thieves are much more likely to go for the theft when they can swoop in unseen, avoiding eye contact with their victim, as the Irish Times reported. Staring at the birds makes them much less likely to steal your food, found the study, “Herring Gulls Respond To Human Gaze Direction” published in the journal Biology Letters.
“Gulls are often seen as aggressive and willing to take food from humans, so it was interesting to find that most wouldn’t even come near during our tests,” said lead author Madeleine Goumas, from of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter’s Penryn Campus, as the BBC reported. “Of those that did approach, most took longer when they were being watched. Some wouldn’t even touch the food at all, although others didn’t seem to notice that a human was staring at them.”
The researchers conducted their study at various popular spots along the English coast. They put just over half a pound of french fries in a bag on the ground and waited to see how long it would take the gulls to nab them. The scientist then crouched down a short distance away from the bag of fries and timed how long it took for a gull to take the first peck. In half the experiments, the researcher faced the bird head on, in the other half they turned away, according to the Independent.
“On average, gulls took 21 seconds longer to approach the food with a human staring at them,” according to a university press release. Yet, the bigger surprise may have been how few gulls actually went for Goumas’ fries. She initially tried to test 74 herring gulls, but only 19 of them, or 26 percent, went for the food.
“The effect was clearer with some individuals than others,” Goumas said, as The Guardian reported. “For the most part the gulls were wary of me when I was watching them, but there were a few individuals that were quick to approach even when I was looking at them.”
The researchers offered some takeaways not only for beachgoers, but anyone around gulls as the birds start to move their way into urban centers.
“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,” said Neeltje Boogert, an author on the paper, in a press 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.”
Goumas added, “People can take steps to prevent it. When you eat, being against a wall that blocks a gull’s access from behind, or just keeping an eye out, being more vigilant, reduces your chances of having your food taken,” as The Guardian reported.
Next, the researchers will examine how eating humans’ food affects gulls and their chicks in the long term, according to a University of Exeter press release.
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