City gulls choose food depending on people’s preferences, ornithologists found

According to the results of field experiments conducted on the coast of Brighton, ninety-five percent of the time the birds pecked at a package of chips of the same color as the package in the hands of a person who was eating chips from another package of the same color. This suggests that seagulls can use information about human behavior to make food choices.

Seagulls have successfully colonized cities because of their high intelligence and flexible behavior. They can find plenty of food in urban environments and breed right on the rooftops of buildings. In addition, they monitor human behavior and use this information for their own benefit. For example, some gull species synchronize feeding with school breaks and trash collection center operations.

However, herring gulls (Larus argentatus) are more cautious and wary of human gaze. They are less likely to steal food from people who look at them and are more willing to eat food touched by humans. A team of zoologists from the University of Sussex conducted a series of field experiments with herring gulls on Brighton beach to find out how they choose their food.

During the experiments, two packs of chips, a blue one and a green one, were left a meter and a half apart on the beach. Five meters away, a tripod with a camera was placed in front of them, with an experimenter sitting in front of it. Seagulls’ reactions were recorded on video in three situations: when the experimenter simply sat and looked at the camera screen, when he took another blue packet of chips out of his bag and ate them, and when he did the same with the green packet.

The researchers found that the herring gulls showed the same interest in the blue and green packet chips. When the experimenter ate the chips (regardless of the color of the package), the birds were more likely to turn their heads toward the packets of chips on the beach and more likely to approach them and peck them. Adult birds were more likely to peck the chip packets than were young birds.

The researchers then tested whether the seagulls were guided by human choice. It turned out that about ninety-five percent of the time these birds pecked at a package of chips the same color as the package in the experimenter’s hands. They were also more willing to approach packages lying on the shore if they saw a person sitting nearby eating chips. When the experimenter simply looked into the camera, less than twenty percent of the seagulls approached the packages on the beach, and in only two cases did they dare to peck them. In contrast, when the man was eating chips, the birds approached the packages lying on the beach about half the time and pecked them twenty percent of the time.

Ornithologists believe that gulls can use information about human behavior to make food choices in urban environments. This may help them survive and breed successfully in an urban environment. However, as the researchers point out, not all gulls are guided by human food choices. Some may ignore food lying on the ground and head for a chip-eating human in the hope of a treat.

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