On a sunny day in Rotterdam, outside the massive food wonderland known as De Martkthall, I wandered down the steps thronged with tourists and locals enjoying the curiously open space in the center of the square. I had spent the morning sampling jamon ibericos and other culinary delights, and had just succumbed to the temptation of a serving of Poffertjes, the mini pancakes dusted with sugar that are a distinct treat in the Netherlands.
Wondering why the throngs of people studiously guarding their similarly enjoyable servings of street food were choosing to cluster on the edges of the wide open area, I naively wandered into the center to enjoy the space and take in the sights.
I soon discovered my mistake — more seagulls than I have ever seen in life descended, latching with laser like precision on my still warm pancakes, as I fled, screaming in a manner befitting Tippi Hedren in The Birds, leaving a trail of Poffertjes and regret in my wake.
It turns out that there might have been some logic behind the birds’ decision, according to a new study that shows that seagulls may use human behavioural cues when searching for food.
“We wanted to find out if gulls are simply attracted by the sight of food, or if people’s actions can draw gulls’ attention towards an item,” study lead author Madeleine Goumas of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall told CNN. “Our study shows that cues from humans may play an important part in the way gulls find food, and could partly explain why gulls have been successful in colonizing urban areas.”
Researchers used flapjacks (‘Ma Baker’ blueberry flapjacks, to be precise), and handled them by raising them towards their face, while wearing sunglasses to avoid unintentional visual cues (apparently, unlike humans’ performative eating on Instagram, seagulls find people staring at them while trying to eat off putting). The herring gulls were more likely to peck at food that had been handled by humans, which reinforces the association between people and food availability in the minds of the birds. Out of 38 gulls studied, 19 of the 24 birds who chose a flapjack picked one that had been handled (perhaps what this study really proves is that seagulls like pancakes).
This research has many implications in a world where increasing human populations, climate change and other environmental factors mean that more species are sharing space. “It is highly unlikely that herring gulls are the only wild animals to use human behavioural cues in urban areas,” read the report. “As urbanization increases, more wild animals will come into contact with humans and anthropogenic items. There may be an increased number of incidences of individuals of certain species displaying problematic behaviour, which can create conflicts between human activity and conservation.”
At the heart of the matter is the ongoing issue of disposing of and reducing food waste, which has been a hot topic for restaurants, suppliers, manufacturers and all other elements of the food supply chain for years. Rising numbers in terms of both commercial and consumer food waste mean that this discarded product is often scavenged by animals in the wild, even when unintended. “They can’t distinguish between something that is given and something that is just there,” said Tony Whitehead, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) to the BBC about the study. “If we can reduce the conflict we can improve the image of these birds.”