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Health & Science

Seagulls Study Human Behavior When Scavenging Food, Scientists Find

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In the U.K., in the county of Cornwall, herring gulls are everywhere.

NEELTJE BOOGERT: So you wake up in the morning with them calling. You know, you go to bed - they're still calling. (Laughter) Their feces are just, you know, always flooded over your house and your car and things like that. And you're often hit by poop just walking around.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That's Dr. Neeltje Boogert, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. There and in many parts of the U.S. and the U.K., the herring gull is the most common variety of the bird many of us call a seagull, and they're not very well liked. Boogert recently surveyed people on campus.

BOOGERT: About 30% likes them, and 70% really hates them.

SHAPIRO: Even many of her scientific colleagues don't have much love for the gulls.

BOOGERT: For people that do study biology, it's 50-50 (laughter).

KELLY: Dr. Boogert is one of the gull lovers. And along with several other scientists, she's been studying how gulls interact with humans to better understand our interspecies conflict, specifically when it comes to food.

SHAPIRO: Last year, her team found that gulls will actually hesitate longer before snatching your french fry if you stare them down.

BOOGERT: And I think that's because they know you're onto them, right? I mean, you're staring at them. It's like, you know, someone stealing something from your shop. If you stare at the shoplifting thief, it's not going to proceed, is it?

SHAPIRO: And now her team has found that gulls prefer to peck at food that they have seen in human hands. They tested that by tempting gulls all over Cornwall with plastic-wrapped granola bars. One bar her collaborator picked up and handled; the other she left alone. And after dozens of tests...

BOOGERT: And it turns out that herring gulls preferentially approach and peck at the one that she had handled.

KELLY: Boogert says this matters because it suggests that gulls are modeling human behavior, something that's rarely been studied outside of domesticated animals, such as dogs.

BOOGERT: This is one of the first studies that we are aware of of a truly wild animal species that's actually probably learned to use human cues.

SHAPIRO: She also hopes to remind us that the so-called bad habits of gulls are often caused by a hostile urban environment built by humans. Despite their prevalence in coastal areas, herring gulls are on the U.K.'s Red List of birds of conservation concern.

BOOGERT: We have light pollution. We have plastics in the ocean. They eat food scraps that are probably increasing their cholesterol and, you know, physiological stress levels. If we do have some individuals that thrive, which strategies do they adopt to be able to survive all these challenges that we impose on them? If you're not as opportunistic as a herring gull, does this mean you're just definitely doomed?

KELLY: Well, hopefully not. But one thing is certain, Boogert says, you should keep your human food to yourself next time you're feeling peckish.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIESINFONIE'S "LATENIGHTWALKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.