Seagulls Take Human Advice When Choosing Snacks, Study Shows

Seagulls Take Human Advice When Choosing Snacks, Study Shows

( – Seagulls are notorious food thieves. If one of the noisy predators sees you eating a snack, beware; there’s a good chance it will swoop in and snatch it out of your hand. Additionally, they’re big, formidable birds, and being robbed of your food by a seagull can be as alarming as it is annoying. Now it turns out that gulls aren’t just aggressive thieves; they’re a lot smarter than we thought.

Most people see food-stealing seagulls as a nuisance, but British researcher Franziska Feist was fascinated by their behavior. Herring gulls are everywhere around the UK’s coast, and they’re always looking for food. Unfortunately, they’re also “kleptoparasites” –- as well as hunting and scavenging, they steal food. Feist wondered if they just grab whatever they see or take cues from what they see people eating. After all, gulls aren’t domestic animals that have evolved alongside humans for thousands of years. Sandwiches and potato chips are recent additions to their diet, so how do they know they’re good to eat?

Feist’s team set up a series of experiments to observe gull behavior. They put down green and blue packs of potato chips where gulls could get at them. A researcher sat about 15 feet away. Sometimes they just watched the gulls; when they did this, 19% of the time, they approached the packets and pecked at them. Other times the scientists pulled out their own pack of chips and started eating them. When the researcher ate chips, the gulls pecked at the bags 48% of the time –- and 95% of the gulls that pecked chose the same color pack as the experimenter had.

According to Feist, this means the gulls are watching people to see what they do, then imitating it –- in other words, they’re good “social learners.” That’s a sign that they’re a lot more than dimwitted dump ducks; they’re actually ingenious animals with a high level of general intelligence. Feist thinks this is “a very exciting notion.” Unfortunately, for the rest of us, it just confirms it isn’t safe to eat if herring gulls are watching.

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