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Staring at a seagull will stop it stealing your food, scientists claim

Staring at a seagull will stop it stealing your food, scientists claim

Seagulls mobbing people for their food is a common seaside sight.

However, if you look straight in their eyes, you can stop them pinching your lunch , according to a new scientific research.

Researchers at the University of Exeter put a bag of chips on the ground and tested how long it took herring gulls to approach.

They compared the length of time when someone was watching them compared to being ignored. On average, gulls took 21 seconds longer to approach the food with a human staring at them.

Out of 74 gulls that the researchers attempted to test, just 27 would go anywhere near the food when a human was present, while just 19 completed the ‘looking at’ and ‘looking away’ tests. Despite having a reputation for being bold and menacing, most gulls were too afraid to peck at food if a human was near.

“We found that they are less likely to approach food when they are being watched.Sometimes they would jump and stop dead when they realised they were being watched. Others, meanwhile, skirted the food or meandered around in elaborate paths as if choosing a moment to strike,” researchers wrote.

“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, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

She added: “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.”

Dr Neeltje Boogert, senior author said these birds learn really quickly, so if they manage to get food from humans once, they might look for more.

“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,” she said.

Scientists say they advise people to look around themselves and watch out for gulls approaching, as they often take food from behind, catching people by surprise.

The University of Exeter researchers said the study, conducted in coastal towns in Cornwall and published in the journal Biology Letters, shows how people might be able to reduce food-snatching by modifying their own behaviour.


Chelsea McLean

Chelsea interests lay in the innovation and discovery of new scientific material. Be it within the realm of the earth, or that of space, she can be found always busy in a journal or website with information on these topics. We can always trust her to lift up the team with her facts and titbits, which reflect in her well-researched articles.

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