Why seagulls always steal your chips: Scientists reveal the birds prefer food that has been handled by humans

  • Researchers conducted experiments with herring gulls in towns in Cornwall
  • They presented 38 gulls with two flapjacks — touching one in front of the birds
  • Of the gulls that went on to peck at the food, 79 per cent chose the handled food
  • Seagulls seem to use cues from humans to choose what to eat, the team said

They’re the thievers of food, the pinchers of chips, the scourge of the seaside skies.

Now scientists have revealed what we’ve always suspected — seagulls do prefer to eat food that has been handled by us hapless humans.

When the birds were presented with two identical food items — one of which they had seen a human holding — they were seen to peck at the handled food more.

This suggests that seagulls use human actions when deciding what to eat, the researchers concluded.

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They’re the thievers of food, the pinchers of chips, the scourge of the seaside skies. Now scientists have revealed what we’ve always suspected — seagulls do prefer to eat food that has been handled by us hapless humans. Pictured, a seagull seen in the middle of stealing chips

The findings of the study led by animal behaviour experts Laura Kelley and Madeleine Goumas of the University of Exeter builds on previous work which found that staring at seagulls makes them less likely to steal food.

‘Our findings suggest that gulls are more likely to approach food that they have seen people drop or put down,’ said Dr Kelly.

‘So they may associate areas where people are eating with an easy meal.’

‘This highlights the importance of disposing of food waste properly, as inadvertently feeding gulls reinforces these associations.’

The researchers had set out to determine whether gulls were simply attracted to the sight of food, or if people’s actions could draw their attention towards an item.

They said that their findings show that cues given by humans may play an important part in the way that gulls find food.

According to Ms Goumas, this could ‘partly explain why gulls have been successful in colonising urban areas.’

When the birds were presented with two identical food items — one of which they had seen a human holding, like pictured — they were seen to peck at the handled food more

The findings of the study led by animal behaviour experts Laura Kelley and Madeleine Goumas of the University of Exeter builds on previous work which found that staring at seagulls makes them less likely to steal food. Pictured, a seagull steals an ice cream cone from a tourist

In their study, the researchers approached individual Herring gulls in Cornish towns — including Falmouth and Penzance — and placed two upturned buckets on the ground in front of them, each of which covered a wrapped blueberry flapjack.

The buckets were then removed, following which one of the researchers picked up one of the flapjacks and handled it for 20 seconds before putting it back down.

In total, of the 38 gulls tested, 24 were seen to peck at one of the flapjacks, with 19 of these — the majority, at 79 per cent — choosing the one that had been handled.

The researchers also checked whether the birds were responding to human handling alone by repeating the experiment with non-food items — specifically, sponges cut into the same size and shape as the flapjacks.

In contrast to the tests with the real flapjacks, the team found that the birds’ preference for the handled sponge did not exceed ‘chance levels’ — suggesting that handling draws their attention to food in particular.

‘Gulls are more likely to approach food that they have seen people drop or put down,’ said Dr Kelly. ‘So they may associate areas where people are eating with an easy meal’

‘This highlights the importance of disposing of food waste properly, as inadvertently feeding gulls reinforces these associations,’ Dr Kelly added. Pictured, a seagull

The team’s findings show that cues given by humans may play an important part in the way that gulls find food. According to Ms Goumas, this could ‘partly explain why gulls have been successful in colonising urban areas’

‘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,’ Ms Goumas added.

‘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.’

‘For example, there are lots of suitable nesting sites, and a ready supply of food.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

In their study, the researchers approached individual Herring gulls in Cornish towns — including Falmouth and Penzance — and placed two upturned buckets on the ground in front of them, each of which covered a wrapped blueberry flapjack

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