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Ever feel like seagulls watch you eat? They probably do — and here’s why, study says

You arrive at the beach ready for a relaxing day. You sit down and pull out some snacks. Immediately, you feel like every seagull in the area is staring at you.

Do the seagulls want to snatch your food? Maybe, or as researchers in the United Kingdom recently discovered, they’re watching for another reason.

Researchers Franziska Feist, Kiera Smith and Paul Graham headed to the beach in Brighton with a camera and several bags of chips, according to a study published May 24 in the journal Biology Letters.

“Urban gulls pay attention to human behavior in food-related contexts,” the researchers said. But to what extent? Previous research focused on how seagulls respond to “people in possession of food.”

But can seagulls watch humans eat and use that observation to pick foods? That’s what researchers set out to study.

The researchers set up an experiment along the Brighton beachfront, the study said. They approached the seagulls, put out two bags of chips — a green bag and a blue bag — then sat nearby filming the seagulls.

Sometimes the researchers simply did nothing but filmed the birds, creating a control condition. Other times the researchers got out another bag of blue or green chips and started eating, creating the experimental conditions, the study said. The seagulls’ heads turn and pecks were recorded.

How did the seagulls respond?

“We found that a demonstrator eating significantly increased the likelihood of a gull pecking one of the presented items,” the researchers said. “Furthermore, 95% of pecks were directed toward the presented food item that color-matched the demonstrator’s food item.”

The findings indicate that seagulls watch what foods humans eat, then “mimic” this behavior with their own food choices, the study said. The birds could “make a connection” between the blue chip bag on the ground and the blue chip bag the researchers ate.

Researchers explained the seagulls’ behavior by comparing their “understanding of human food cues” to the adaptations of domesticated animals. They also noted this behavior could be explained by seagulls’ tendency to steal food from other animals.

While only about 25% of seagulls will interact with human foods, “those that do interact with people seem to possess a cognitive toolkit that will make the mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts difficult,” the researchers said.

Brighton is about 50 miles south of London.

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