Our interaction with seagulls may be why they take our chips in the first place

We need to think about the broader implications of how we affect the personality of wild animals. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Seagulls hit the news last week when a study conducted by the University of Exeter found that staring at the birds made them less likely to steal your chips. The story was on the front page of The Times, #Seagulls was trending on Twitter and Channel 4 covered it in a prime time news-segment. Madeleine Goumas, who did the research for her masters degree, even appeared on BBC Breakfast. 

For the study, Goumas stood on Cornish beaches with a bag of chips placed nearby. The bag was transparent so the chips were visible, but weighted down so the birds could not get to the food. When a gull started to approach, Goumas started a stopwatch and then either stared at it or looked away. 

The birds she stared at took an average of 21 seconds longer to approach the food. I covered the study for The Times, and like others focused on the act of “staring” as a means of putting off a gull interested in taking your chips. But what if we all missed the most interesting part of the story?

Of the 74 gulls tested, only 19 were brave enough to peck at the chips at all. What was so special about them, and why were the others so cowardly? 

This all comes down to something that can often be forgotten, wild animals have personalities and human interaction affects these personalities. Given gull populations in Britain are falling at an unprecedented pace, maybe our interactions with gulls should be under greater scrutiny than ever before. 

Dr Katerina Johnson, who has studied animal personalities at the University of Oxford, tells me most studies on the topic look at aggressiveness, likelihood to take risks and an animal's attraction to new things (neophilia). Animal personality has a genetic and environmental basis, so how did these factors make certain gulls approach the chips while others didn’t?

Some may simply be more inclined to be risk-takers. Professor Dawn Scott, who studies mammal ecology and conservation at the University of Brighton, says that these animals may have been bold due to innate genetic characteristics, and then had their behaviour reinforced when they discovered that they could get away with taking the risk. 

She says “we blame animals for how they behave, but they are responding to our behaviour” and compares urban gulls to urban foxes and how their personalities interact with natural selection to affect their behaviour. 

Scott says that 50 years ago, when foxes were colonising British cities, shy foxes didn’t do as well as the braver ones in foraging for food. Not all the foxes could be as brave as each other, so the more shy ones developed different strategies to survive such as resting in allotments or areas further from humans. A population needs a mix of personalities to thrive. 

Professor John Quinn, who studies bird evolution and ecology at University College Cork, says that like humans however, one part of your personality can have an inadvertent impact on other aspects of your life. He gives me the example of two species of bluebirds in Montana called the Western and Mountain bluebirds. Some Western bluebirds expanded into the territory of the Mountain bluebirds, but in order to do so they had to be aggressive. But while they outcompeted the Mountain bluebirds, the researchers found this aggressiveness made them less effective parents, and so in future generations, aggressiveness was not selected for despite it having enabled them to fight off their rivals

Quinn notes how this is a clear instance of personality having a genetic basis. 

Boldness also does not necessarily give the UK's gulls an advantage over the others. Goumas herself wonders whether the junk food these gulls are eating may reduce their life-expectancy. Taking more risks might not be a good thing at all and could also be selected against in future generations. 

Goumas tells me that she believes that most people assume all gulls are alike, when in fact they all behave differently. We all know our pets have their own personality, so why not wild animals? 

She also speculates that future research could track individual gulls over a longer period of time in order to understand what causes these gulls to have such different personalities. 

As new parts of the country continue to get urbanised, we are going to have to get even more used to living with gulls and other wild animals, and we should realise that our behaviour may encourage gulls, or indeed other animals, to be more bold and affect their genetic makeup in the future. 

Goumas notes that “the sort of high-calorie foods we eat can sustain them for hours or days” which is why they associate us with food. So when we drop food and don’t pick it up, or when we put out bin-bags out that are thin enough to break into, we are encouraging gulls to take more risks. In other words, when you see a story about another gull taking a little girl’s chip, we only have ourselves to blame.

Jason Murugesu is a postgraduate student in science communication at Imperial College London, and a former Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman.