Herring gull aversion to gaze in urban and rural human settlements

We investigated how exposure to humans affects gulls’ aversion to human gaze.

We previously found that human gaze deters herring gulls: when being stared at, gulls were much slower to approach human food than when the experimenter was looking away. We next wanted to explore how exposure to humans might affect this ‘gaze sensitivity’: would gulls in urban areas, with more exposure to humans, be more or less wary of human gaze as compared to gulls in rural areas? And would juveniles be more scared of humans, given their limited experience as compared to adults? As herring gull chicks are born with their eyes open and leave the nest soon after hatching, it would seem beneficial to be averse to gaze; the eyes watching you may belong to predators…

Herring gull chicks with leg rings on a Falmouth roof. Photo courtesy of Drew Baigent.

We tested a total of 155 herring gulls, about half of which were adults, half juveniles, in ca. 25 different towns along the Cornish coast that varied in human population size. We approached each gull with a constant pace, while either looking at the gull or looking at the ground.

Test sites in Cornwall, UK. Image courtesy of Leo Fordham

We replicated our initial finding that herring gulls find human gaze aversive: we could approach gulls more closely when looking away. We also found that herring gulls in urban areas were more tolerant of the experimenter approaching as compared to rural gulls, as has also been reported in previous studies of other urban species.

Gulls in more highly populated areas are less fearful of people. Each dot represents one gull.

Surprisingly, we found no significant effect of gull age or settlement type on gaze sensitivity: juveniles were as wary of human gaze as were adult gulls, and urban gulls were as averse as rural gulls. These findings suggest that gulls do not require extensive experience with humans to be deterred by human gaze.

Our paper, published in Animal Behaviour, suggests that staring at gulls is likely to deter them, whether you’re in a city or small town, and whether you’re staring at a juvenile or adult gull.

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