When you’re tucking into a tasty piece of battered fish and admiring a peaceful ocean view the threat of being mugged constantly surrounds you. Winged thieves could descend from the skies at any moment, tearing your delicious meal from your lap. But now, thankfully, we have a scientifically proven way of tackling the problem head-on: stare the gulls down.
Concerned by the impact these feathered crooks are having on innocent people’s day to day lives, researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK took it upon themselves to find a solution. Equipped with nothing more than a bag of fries, they headed to the Cornish seaside to conduct a scientific experiment.
The team tried to include 74 participants, but the majority flew away or refused to approach the fries. However, 19 herring gulls were willing to get involved in the two-part experiment.
First, a researcher would place a bag of fries on the ground and crouch down behind it, looking away. Next the same would occur except the researcher would look the gull right in its beady eyes, attempting to hold her ground. You can see the two conditions in the video below.
The researchers discovered that, on average, the gulls took 21 seconds longer to approach the fries when they were being watched while some wouldn’t even bother trying to grab the food. Still, a few sassy birds did go for the fries even when being stared down.
“Most took longer when they were being watched. Some wouldn't even touch the food at all, although others didn't seem to notice that a human was staring at them,” said Madeleine Goumas, lead author of the study published in Biology Letters.
"We didn't examine why individual gulls were so different – it might be because of differences in ‘personality’ and some might have had positive experiences of being fed by humans in the past."
It seems that most gulls are actually too shy to approach humans, but a minority of particularly brazen birds has sullied their reputation. Looking these ringleaders dead in the eye will hopefully make them warier and allow you to enjoy your fish and chips in peace.
“We… advise people to look around themselves and watch out for gulls approaching, as they often appear to take food from behind, catching people by surprise,” said senior author Dr Neeltje Boogert.
"It seems that just watching the gulls will reduce the chance of them snatching your food."
Gulls should really be feeding on fish and invertebrates, so the team now hopes to find out whether a high-fat diet of salty, fried snacks affects the birds’ health. Perhaps our penchant for fast food is changing the course of their evolution, as it has for NYC’s pizza-loving mice.