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Science & Environment

When Gulls Look at Humans, They See a Free Lunch (With Chips)

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pgoiris1@bigpond.com
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At this time in July, gulls are fledging young, the beaches are crowded with people, making it time to talk about behavior at the beach. Gulls are adaptable, and once they figure out how to find a meal they quickly learn new behavior. The gulls I am talking about belong to the following species - Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull and Laughing Gull. They have beach smarts, often operating like a rogue gang, terrorizing beach goers. They are getting smarter as you read this.

The more crowded a beach is, with people, beachgoers, picnickers and the like, the bolder and smarter the gulls. By observing gulls of many species at many beaches, not only on the Cape and Islands but all over the globe, I have seen many things. Gulls adapt to human presence very quickly. In fact, they have learned to equate humans with a free lunch. It is fair to say that humans on the beach attract gulls on a summer beach.

This is so because wherever human activity occurs, so comes along food for opportunistic gulls. Take for example any of the vastly popular beaches in our area that attract many more humans than gulls. This week and next, more gulls will arrive from breeding colonies. Their numbers will continue to increase daily for several more weeks.

The gulls have finished with breeding activity for the year and have dispersed from nesting colonies. Adults often return to familiar haunts. Many of the individuals hanging out are undoubtedly birds that had success finding food on the very same beach last year and in prior years. Gulls are very long lived. A Herring Gull in the wild was known to have lived over 36 years and in captivity an individual expired at 65 years.  

Once they mature and make it past their first breeding season, gulls have a low mortality rate. They then continue to do what got them this far and establish a routine. Chances are good that the gull tearing open unattended bags on the beach is the same one who did it last year.

By unattended on the beach I mean that a human was more than a few feet away or sleeping on a blanket. In the past decade there have been growing numbers of individual Herring and Ring-billed gulls on various beaches. Each year they have their old routines down, but continue to keep learning ever increasingly bold and aggressive moves to get food.

They scarf down sandwiches in open coolers and rip open chip bags with people a scant few feet away. With increased numbers and the distraction they cause they are able to increase scavenging opportunities. The reason for the increased boldness is it leads to rewards-a meal. People feed the gulls causing them to associate people with food.

Many on vacation think it is great fun to feed the gulls. It is fun initially, but like feeding wild animals anywhere it is a bad practice. It dulls the birds’ innate fear of humans and encourages increasingly aggressive behavior. It will continue to get worse and possibly dangerous. It is bad for the birds. Subjecting them to what we humans eat could be the cruelest trick of all.

The solution to this problem while obvious is not an easy one. Brown and Black Bears in National Parks have suffered because of people feeding them. They lost their natural fear and park officials have been forced to remove them to eliminate danger to people. People were the problem, not the bears, but the bears end up on the short end of the stick.  Please don’t feed the gulls.

This week's Bird Report is a rebroadcast. It originally aired July 16, 2014.