Seagulls steal your food because they’re smart, new Sussex University study finds

  • Watch ITV Meridian's Sarah Saunders' report

Seagulls are famous for stealing beach-goers' chips and ice-creams but now a new study has revealed they do it because they're so smart.

New research published by the University of Sussex has found that this cheeky characteristic is a sign of intelligence, as these birds can learn how to mimic the food choices of humans.

Researchers say there are many examples of how animals learn from each other and herring gulls learn from their species when trying to source and gather food. But the new research has they also take cues from humans.  

Researchers carried out an experiment where they positioned one blue crisp packet and one green crisp packet in the immediate vicinity of both individual and groups of herring gulls along Brighton’s seafront.

A seagull enjoys the sunshine at Brighton beach. Credit: ITV Meridian

Nearby, a human experimenter ate from a blue or green crisp packet.

The researchers found that the gulls would turn their heads to watch the experimenter and, in most cases, then pecked at the matching crisp packet to attempt to find food. 

The research shows that gulls observe humans and the food options they select, and use that knowledge to determine their own food choices.

It's a behaviour which which researchers say is a sign of intelligence.

  • Prof Paul Graham, Professor of Neuroethology at the University of Sussex

Prof Paul Graham, Professor of Neuroethology at the University of Sussex explains: While we know that animals learn from each other, we rarely see animals learning from a totally different species when it comes to food preferences. 

“This interaction with humans is relatively modern, and what we can see is that gulls have adapted to thrive in urban environments by mimicking human food choices. 

“Gulls didn’t evolve to like chips. Over time they have had to learn to engage with humans in order to source food. It is therefore a sign of intelligence.

“But gulls may be less likely to steal our food if we focus on reducing litter. That’s because littering increases gulls’ ability to learn about how our different food options and how they taste.” 

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