If it's good enough for you, it's good enough for them.

By Jelisa Castrodale
Updated February 26, 2020

Every year, the Internet is blessed with at least one perfectly timed picture of a seagull swooping down to help itself to a handful of French fries or an entire scoop of ice cream during someone's unfortunate, suddenly unsanitary day at the beach.

And according to a newly published paper from researchers at the University of Exeter, the fact that a human has handled that food could be what made it look extra-appealing to the bird in the first place.

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In the study, the research team visited towns in Cornwall, England, where adult herring gulls were known to hang out. Lead researcher Madeleine Goumas placed two food items—in this case, she used unopened packages of granola bars—on the ground and covered them with buckets. As the curious birds watched, Goumas removed the buckets simultaneously, then picked one of the snacks up and handled it for 20 seconds before putting it back down. (She even wore dark glasses to avoid "giving eye gaze cues" to the gulls.)

She and her collaborators then watched to see which granola bar the birds were more likely to be interested in. They performed this test in front of 38 different gulls, and 24 of them approached one of the packages and pecked at it. Of the birds who checked out a snack, 19 of them (79 percent) selected the one that they'd watched Goumas handle.

The test was then repeated using "a non-food object," which was a blue sponge that had been cut into a similar size and shape as the snack packages. Again, Goumas covered both items with buckets, revealed them, and picked one of the sponges up and touched it for 20 seconds.

Forty-one different gulls were individually presented with this inedible choice, and 23 of them pecked at one of the sponges. Fifteen birds (65 percent) chose the sponge that Goumas had handled, a percentage that the researchers said wasn't any better than "chance" levels. "These results suggest that urban gulls generally show low levels of neophobia, but that they use human handling as a cue specifically in the context of food," the researchers wrote in their paper, which was recently published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

"Despite the fact they’re a common sight in many towns, little is known about urban gull behavior. We wanted to find out if gulls are simply attracted by the sight of food, or if people’s actions can draw gulls’ attention towards an item," Goumas said. "Our study shows that cues from humans may play an important part in the way gulls find food, and could partly explain why gulls have been successful in colonizing urban areas.”

Because the birds seem to be attracted to food items that they've watched humans touch, another of the study's authors says that it's even more important to properly throw food waste and snack wrappers in the trash. "Our findings suggest that gulls are more likely to approach food that they have seen people drop or put down, so they may associate areas where people are eating with an easy meal," Dr. Laura Kelley said.

But if you can't imagine a summer without having some beachside snacks, don't worry: these same researchers have previously learned that seagulls are less likely to steal food if a human is watching them. That sounds like another good reason to look up from our phones every once in a while—even if it means that we might not get that destined-to-be-viral picture of a fry-stealing bird.

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