Why seagulls steal your food at the beach revealed

Birds are more likely to go after food if a human has it, a new study says  (Getty )
Birds are more likely to go after food if a human has it, a new study says (Getty )

Anyone accustomed to a UK beach holiday might already suspect seagulls are wily predators when it comes to snatching a chip or two.

Now, new research has revealed why seagulls are so keen to steal our food at the beach.

Franziska Feist from the University of Sussex and her colleagues studied the behaviour of the birds at Brighton Beach in 2021 and 2022 - presenting blue and green packets of crisps to groups of gulls.

Researchers conducted an experiment, sitting on the ground about five metres away either watching the birds or eating from one of the packets.

They found 48 per cent of the birds approached the packets when the person was eating, compared with 19 per cent when they weren’t.

The study suggests it is likely that seagulls steal our food because they are influenced by human behaviour, researchers said.

Ms Feist said: “The evolutionary history of herring gulls wouldn’t have involved humans, since their urbanisation is rather recent.

“So the skills we identified, those that allow them to learn from another species through observations, must come from more general purpose intelligence, rather than an innate ability. This is a very exciting notion to me.”

Madeleine Goumas from the University of Exeter said research like this can minimise the conflict between seagulls and humans, but warned that eating human food may not be beneficial to seagulls.

“Gulls seem to have realised that we are a great information source when it comes to finding food,” she said. “However, the kind of processed food humans eat is a relatively new addition to wild animals’ diets and it is unclear whether it is actually beneficial for them, which is a concern when the species is declining.”

A study conducted by the University of Bristol in 2020 revealed that seagulls’ foraging patterns closely matched the timing of school breaks and the opening and closing times of the waste centre.

The study suggested that seagulls have the behavioural flexibility to adapt their foraging behaviour to human time schedules.

In 2019, scientists from the University of Exeter found that seagulls are less likely to steal food when they know they are being watched.

The research found on average birds took 21 seconds longer to approach a bag of chips if they could see they were being watched.

Despite having a reputation for being bold and menacing, most gulls were too afraid to peck at food if a human was near and out of 74 birds only 27 took a chip.