A new study suggests that if you find yourself annoyed by seagulls at the beach or, more increasingly, urban areas, the best way to discourage them is to make eye contact.
Researchers at Britain’s University of Exeter observed 155 herring gulls – the most common variety of seagull, and a variety, they say, that is becoming more common in urban areas.
The gulls tend to be seemingly fearless around people in either setting when it comes to stealing food. They have been known to fly off with whatever a person might be eating if it is left unguarded.
For their study, the researchers approached the seagulls while either looking directly at them or facing toward them, while keeping their eyes to the ground. They found when their eyes were locked with the gulls, the birds tended to flee.
The gulls reacted the same way in both beach and urban areas.
A similar 2019 study led by University of Exeter PhD student Madeleine Goumas, examined how the gulls reacted when people looked at them or looked away. The study found looking directly at birds while they ate prompted them to fly away sooner.
Goumas is lead author on the new study, which refined the methodology by having experimenters only move their eyes as they approached the gulls. She said the study shows the gulls responded specifically to human eye direction. It was as true in young gulls as it was mature ones, indicating it was innate behavior, not the result of any one gull’s negative interaction with people.
The researchers suggest the behavior reflects the gull’s large brains that have allowed them to adapt to survive a life of interacting with humans.
The study was published online on September 4 and will appear in the October 2020 issue of the journal Animal Behavior.