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Sunday, October 4, 2020

“Don’t eyeball me!”

Herring Gulls Pay Attention to Human Gaze, New Study Finds
By Science News Staff / Source

Sea Life Eating GIF by Kimmy RamoneWith an increasing human population and expansion of urban settlements, wild animals are often exposed to humans.

As our species may be a threat, a neutral presence or a source of food, animals will benefit from continuously assessing the potential risk they pose in order to respond appropriately.

European herring gulls are increasingly breeding and foraging in urban areas, and thus have many opportunities to interact with humans.

Madeleine Goumas and her colleagues from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter recently found that these birds take longer to approach food when being watched by a human.

However, it is not known whether aversion to human gaze arises from experience with humans, and whether individual differences in responsiveness are a result of differential exposure.

In the new study, the researchers tested whether herring gulls’ responses to human gaze differ according to their age class and urbanization of their habitat.

“Herring gulls are increasingly breeding and foraging in urban areas, and therefore have regular interactions with humans,” said Goumas, lead author of the study.

“We know from previous research that gulls are less likely to peck a bag of chips if a human is watching — but in that experiment a researcher either looked at the gulls or turned their head away.”
“In our new study, the experimenter approached while facing the gull and only changed the direction of their eyes — either looking down or at the gull.”

“We were interested to find that gulls pay attention to human eye direction specifically, and that this is true for juveniles as well as adults — so their aversion to human gaze isn’t a result of months or years of negative interactions with people.”

The study was conducted in Cornwall, UK, targeting adult gulls (aged four years or older, evidenced by white and grey plumage) and juveniles (born in the year of the study, with completely brown plumage).

A total of 155 gulls were included in the findings: 50 adults and 45 juveniles in urban settlements, and 34 adults and 26 juveniles in rural settlements.

The scientists approached gulls while either looking at the ground or directly at the birds.
The birds were slower to move away when not being watched — allowing a human to get 2 m (6.5 feet) closer on average.

Juveniles were just as likely to react to human gaze direction as older birds, suggesting they are born with this tendency or quickly learn it.

Gulls in urban areas could be approached more closely than those in rural areas, consistent with findings in other species.

As well as being quicker to flee, rural gulls were also more than three times as likely to fly — rather than walk — away from an approaching human, suggesting they are less used to being approached.

“The growing number of herring gulls in urban areas may make them appear more common than they really are,” Goumas said.

“The species is actually in decline in the UK, and we hope our ongoing research into human-gull interactions will contribute to conservation efforts.”
Madeleine Goumas et al. 2020. Herring gull aversion to gaze in urban and rural human settlements. Animal Behaviour 168: 83-88; doi: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2020.08.008