How to stop seagulls from stealing your chips

Seagulls: the ultimate chip thieves.
Seagulls: the ultimate chip thieves. Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Sick and tired of trying to have a peaceful lunch by the water only to have your precious hot chips stolen by flocks of beady-eyed seagulls? You're not alone.

Sometimes, however, science truly comes through with the goods.

Allow me to introduce a team of heros from Exeter University who stumbled upon a way to encourage gulls to walk on by - sans chip.

Stare them down.

Yes - according to the research, published in the journal Biology Letters, gulls took longer to approach a chip when they were being stared at by a human.

The researchers observed herring gulls in coastal towns of Cornwall, U.K. They placed a bag of chips in front of an experimenter, who was crouched down, and waited to see what happened. In one version of the experiment, the human stared at the bird and timed how long it took for the gull to approach the chips. In the other, they looked away. The trial was considered complete when the bird either pecked the bag, or left it for more than five minutes.

Interestingly, gulls weren't quite the chip-thieving beasts we make them out to be. In fact, of the 74 they tested, most flew away or simply wouldn't approach at all. Only 19 birds stayed in place long enough to complete the staring and non-staring tests.

While gulls took a median of 25 seconds to peck at the bag when being watched, they waited just 13 seconds when chips were unattended. (A lot like a toddler, really.) Six didn't touch the food at all while being watched, but all of them went for gold when the experimenter turned away.

"Gulls are often seen as aggressive and willing to take food from humans, so it was interesting to find that most wouldn't even come near during our tests," said lead author Madeleine Goumas, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

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"Of those that did approach, most took longer when they were being watched. Some wouldn't even touch the food at all, although others didn't seem to notice that a human was staring at them."

So why might some gulls be more willing to chip-steal than others? Well, they're probably just born that way.

"We didn't examine why individual gulls were so different - it might be because of differences in "personality" and some might have had positive experiences of being fed by humans in the past - but it seems that a couple of very bold gulls might ruin the reputation of the rest," Ms Goumas said.

Like this guy, for example:

Adds senior author Dr Neeltje Booger, "Gulls learn really quickly, so if they manage to get food from humans once, they might look for more ... It seems that just watching the gulls will reduce the chance of them snatching your food."

In the interests of science, I tried to recruit some volunteers to test said theory out in the wild.

"Seems like an unseasonable time for a chip-seagull story," said one person.

"You want me to do what?" said another.

"No time for a lunch break today. I'm very busy and important," said another.

Useless.

So for now, we rest our case on the behaviour of 19 gulls. 

But look, the next time you're eating chips and fending off seagulls, it's definitely worth a try.