It turns out you can ward off some thieving gulls by just staring them down, according to a new study. I say some gulls, because others are not deterred by glares from humans.
Human-gull interactions can be the bane of beachgoers and make for popular online fodder, but are often bad for both the people and the birds. Thankfully, it turns out that gulls dislike being leered at about as much people do. The researchers hope their findings will help to protect the gulls—specifically the European herring gull, whose British population has decreased by 60 percent between 1969 and 2015, according to one assessment.
“We were thinking about ways to reduce these human-gull conflicts in ways that are nonviolent and don’t harm the birds,” Neeltje Boogert, the study’s corresponding author and research fellow at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, told Gizmodo. “They’re a species of conservation concern.”
The researchers put a clear, zip-top freezer bag filled with around a half-pound of french fries close to the study gulls. An experimenter would crouch near the bag and either look right into the gull’s eyes or turn away from the gull, measuring the amount of time until the gull pecked the bag. The researchers tried to test 74 gulls, but only 27 actually began the test and only 19 completed it—it turns out that most gulls would prefer not to rob people who are actively guarding their food. The paper, published in Biology Letters, notes that half of the gulls who didn’t cooperate with the trial tried to eat the food after the test was over.
Behaviors varied a lot between the individuals, but on average, gulls took longer to go for the fries when they were being stared down, and six of the gulls wouldn’t touch the food during the staring trials. Other gulls sprang at the food within seconds whether they were receiving a stare-down or not, according to the paper.
Other animals (including humans!) tend to change their behavior when you stare at them, so perhaps the results aren’t so surprising, Michael Patten, one of the paper’s reviewers, told Gizmodo in an email. He felt the paper’s results were important enough to get the word out, but that more trials using more field observers could help reduce any potential sources of bias. The researchers also hope to one day study responses of individual gulls, according to the paper. It’s also important to note that the researchers only focused on one species, and at least here in the United States, you might find four or more gull species on a given beach. But Boogert predicted that the technique would work on other gulls, too.
Perhaps most surprising about the paper is just how much we don’t know about these animals that we share our space with. While other species might be pushed out, gulls seem to adapt to our presence and thrive on our trash. But whether this lifestyle benefits the gulls or whether the birds are just making the best of a bad situation is up for debate.
I’ve come to like gulls ever since I spoke to the young Tasmanian man who ventured all the way to the U.S. just to see our many gull species, and the herring gull is an especially impressive one—it’s a cunning and graceful bird that’s bigger than the most common American hawks and seems to cope with human presence by standing its ground and taking advantage of whatever resources it can. Maybe next time you’re staring down a herring gull that’s threatening your ice cream cone, you’ll also develop an appreciation for these so-called garbage birds.