Picky eaters: Seagulls prefer food that humans have already touched

EXETER, England — Modern diners tend to spend lots of time researching restaurants, cafes, and food trucks long before actually patronizing such establishments. Review sites and apps are all the rage, and most tech-savvy eaters largely know what to expect from an eating establishment by reading past customers’ reviews long before picking up a physical menu. Well, according to a new study, even seagulls naturally prefer food they know someone else enjoyed first.

Researchers at the University of Exeter have discovered that seagulls favor food that they saw being held by humans over non-handled food. Apparently seagulls think highly of humans when it comes to food taste. This is actually just the latest work in a series of studies performed at the University of Exeter centered on seagulls and food; a previous research initiative had found staring at seagulls makes them less inclined to steal one’s food.

“UK herring gull numbers are declining, but urban populations have increased,” notes lead author Madeleine Goumas, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall, in a release. “Despite the fact they’re a common sight in many towns, little is known about urban gull behavior.

“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,” she explains. “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 colonizing urban areas.”

The research was carried out in local Cornish towns such as Falmouth and Penzance. During the experiment, a researcher would approach a solitary gull and place two buckets in front of the bird. Both buckets contained the same food: a wrapped flapjack (oat bar). The researcher would then remove the buckets and pick up one of the flapjacks, hold it for 20 seconds, and then put it back down. Next, the seagull would be free to choose which flapjack to eat.

This scenario was repeated with 38 different seagulls. In total, 24 pecked at one of the two flapjacks, and 79% of that portion (19) picked the flapjack that had been handled by the researcher.

A follow-up experiment was also conducted in order to see if the gulls would only be influenced by human actions regarding food. This time, two sponges were cut to the exact shape and size of flapjacks and placed in the buckets. The gulls’ subsequent choices did not exceed “chance levels,” indeed indicating that seagulls only seem to really care about human handling when food is involved.

“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,” senior author Dr. Laura Kelley comments. “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,” she concludes. “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.”

The study is published in Royal Society Open Science.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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