Ask anyone who lives in a UK coastal area and they will confirm that seagulls can be a nuisance. There are no limits to these birds’ food stealing, and no one is safe from one of their stealing attacks.
For many people, this behavior is the result of the seagulls’ inherent aggression. But in reality, gulls like the herring gull are more intelligent than we realize, particularly in terms of their social skills.
These birds can pay attention to the behavior of others and use the information they collect to inform their own feeding choices.
Herring gulls thrive in modern urban areas. Urban gull colonies have taken off since they made European cities their home in the mid-20th century, despite overall declines in the overall gull population.
As a species, they have also shown great flexibility in their diet, nesting, and reproductive behavior.
As a scientist interested in animal cognition, I am fascinated by the intelligent behavior that allows gulls to successfully forage for human food.
Research has already shown that urban herring gulls adapt their foraging behavior to patterns of human activity, increase their attention toward a person in possession of food, and prefer food that has been touched by a person to food. no.
To build on this, my master’s students Franziska Feist and Kiera Smith and I set out to find out if birds could not only track objects handled by humans, but also compare objects in their environment with those handled by a human.
The ability to compare objects and identify if they are identical involves higher cognitive ability than object tracking alone.
We placed two packets of different colored Walkers brand crisps on the ground a few meters in front of small groups or individuals of herring gulls on Brighton beach.
We sat down on the sand and held up a third packet of chips that matched the color of any of the packets on the ground.
We then recorded the response of the seagulls to see if, as we assumed, they would choose the packet of chips that matched the color of the one in our hand.
Of the seagulls that pecked at the packets of chips, almost all (95 percent) pecked at the packet of chips that matched the color of the one in our hand. This suggests that these gulls possess the ability to identify and compare objects within their environment.
Furthermore, the gulls appeared to observe the feeding choices of others, specifically people in this case, and use the information they gained to decide what to eat.
The number of approaches to us did not differ significantly between adults and young birds (ie, any with brown plumage).
However, most of those who tried to steal one of the packets of chips were adults.
About 86 percent of recorded peckings came from adults, despite the fact that these birds represent only 46 percent of our entire sample.
This suggests that stealing food requires a certain level of daring and skill that most young birds lack.
Another plausible explanation is that young birds may have been deterred by competition with adult birds, which they are likely to lose.
Wide behavioral repertoire
Our findings are interesting because herring gulls have not evolved with humans. In fact, its urbanization began relatively recently, about 80 years ago.
That means this behavior can’t come from an innate ability resulting from co-evolution or an extended period of living alongside humans. Rather, it must be the result of a broader and more general behavioral repertoire.
From a scientific perspective, this is fascinating. Herring gulls appear to be an intelligent and versatile predator that has successfully adapted to urban environments due to their observational skills and behavioral flexibility.
However, for many people, this can have some pretty negative implications. Coastal residents and visitors frequently experience the impressive but annoying ability of these birds to observe, target, and steal food from picnics, bins, and people directly.
We suggest that these problems likely stem from more than just people directly feeding urban gulls.
It seems that simply watching us eat something will make that specific food, and any identical items in the immediate vicinity, more attractive to these birds.
It is this set of cognitive tools that will make the tension between humans and urban herring gulls unwieldy.
However, our work is in line with existing studies which suggest that only around a quarter of the UK urban gull population will attempt to steal food from a person. Less than a fifth of the gulls we sampled approached the packets of potato chips when we were sitting nearby.
Regardless, any attempt to minimize conflict must extend beyond discouraging people from feeding gulls and must take into account the exceptional bird-watching abilities of these birds.
What is clear, however, is that we cannot rely solely on posters that insist that people “don’t feed the birds”.
Paul Graham, Professor of Neuroethology, University of Sussex
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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