Seagulls prefer food touched by humans

01 March 2020

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A seagull standing on the back of a car.

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Seagulls prefer food that has been touched by humans, new research from the University of Exeter has found...

Armed with buckets and a pair of identical flapjacks, Madeleine Goumas, the study’s lead author, set out to investigate how human touch influences the snack preferences of herring gulls in Cornish costal towns.

“I moved the buckets, and picked one flapjack up and handled it for 20 seconds,” explains Goumas. “I moved away, and allowed the gull to approach, to see which flapjack they pecked at, if any.”

Most of the gulls (79%) preferred the flapjacks she'd handled previously, Goumas found.

“They’re probably very used to people eating food and discarding it,” she explains. “It may be that they’ve learned that food is more accessible once it’s been handled, because any packaging may be open.”

Researchers repeated the experiment using sponges, to see if the seagull were interested in human-handled inedible items. But, the seagulls didn’t interact with the sponges above chance levels.

Goumas highlights that this preference for human-handled food may not be beneficial for the gulls in the long run.

“The food often has a lot of energy, but not necessarily the nutrients the animals need,” she says. “Also a lot of food is in plastic, and plastic ingestion is often a real issue.”

And while the herring gull’s preference for your chips may be irritating, Goumas points out that they are wild animals trying to survive in a human-created environment.

“I think trying to help people understand why they are behaving this way could help to ease a bit of tension.”

Goumas is not done investigating how herring gulls respond to humans. She hopes to test next whether gulls can recognise individual human faces.

“Humans respond to herring gulls in very diverse ways, chasing them or feeding them; so they are getting mixed messages. So it probably would be beneficial for the gulls to be able to recognise individuals.”

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