Live near the water? Seagulls know where and when to steal your food

BRISTOL, United Kingdom — If you’ve ever been to a beach, you’ve probably seen a flock of seagulls descending on someone’s tasty lunch or begging for scraps on the boardwalk. While it may seem like a coincidence — you’re there and that’s where the birds live — a study finds these crafty gulls might actually be stalking you. Researchers from the University of Bristol say birds living near city centers actually know when and where humans show up with food for them to snatch.

A team from Bristol’s Faculties of Engineering and Life Sciences tracked a group of seagulls using GPS devices to see just how smart these flyers are. Specifically, scientists wanted to know how bird behavior and foraging skills adapt to urban environments.

Researchers say living in a city is a unique experience for animals. Unlike life in nature, urban areas provide birds with a healthy selection of food sources. Much of this availability however, is determined by the humans making that food. The British team adds that, until now, scientists have learned very little about how wild animals adjust to the daily schedules of humans.

The study fit 12 Lesser Black‐backed Gulls in the Bristol area with GPS trackers inside tiny backpacks. They also took observations of local flocks at three different sites; a public park, a school, and a city waste center.

Seagulls ‘adapt to time schedules of urban living’

The results revealed the birds’ foraging patterns adapted to match the times children came out of school to have lunch. The gulls also swarmed the waste center during its opening and closing times. The only place birds didn’t line up their schedules with humans was found to be at a local park.

“Our first day at the school, the students were excited to tell us about the gulls visiting their school at lunch time. Indeed, our data showed that gulls were not only present in high numbers during lunch time to feed on leftovers, but also just before the start of the school and during the first break when students had their snack. Similarly, at the waste center the gulls were present in higher numbers on weekdays when the center was open and trucks were unloading food waste,” lead author Dr. Anouk Spelt says in a university release.

“Although everybody has experienced or seen gulls stealing food from people in parks, our gulls mainly went to park first thing in the morning and this may be because earthworms and insects are present in higher numbers during these early hours.”

Study co-author Dr. Shane Windsor adds that some of the gulls even timed out their meals so they could grab food from all three locations in the same day. As more eateries convert to outdoor dining due to the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps diners shouldn’t be surprised if they are joined by some uninvited guests soon.

“These results highlight the behavioral flexibility of gulls and their ability to adapt to the artificial environments and time schedules of urban living,” Windsor concludes.

The study appears in the journal IBIS, the International Journal of Avian Science.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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