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Fact/Fiction: Does staring at a gull really stop it from stealing your chips?

Old news, truthfully retold. It's the season for eating takeaways outside, and recent reports have suggested the best way to combat feathered food snatchers

How it was told

Gulls are the scourge of many town centres and seaside promenades. A looming menace waiting to steal food from the unwitting. Many people have just accepted their threatening presence. A Hitchcockian gauntlet that must be run to enjoy a bag of chips.

But last week a study from the University of Exeter suggested there is a simple way to stave off the gulls: eye contact.

Media outlets across the country leapt on the potentially lunch-changing news, with the The Guardian reporting: “Giving marauding birds the eye makes them more wary of stealing food, study finds”. They even quoted Conservative mayor of Worcester Alan Amos, who told The Sun last month that it was time for a cull of nuisance gulls. He said: “We must kill the bloody things.”

The Independent – which posted a video of the staring experiment online – echoed The Guardian with its headline: “Staring down seagulls is the secret to protecting your chips from being snatched, scientists say”.

And the research was summed up by Mail Online in its report, which said: “In a study of herring gulls using a bag of chips as bait, almost a third of gulls didn’t dare touch it when a person was making eye contact, but would when they looked away.”

But is a stiff glare really enough to fight off a flock of hungry birds?

Facts. Checked

Firstly, there is no such thing as a seagull. The RSPB confirms the word is an informal way to refer to a whole host of bird classifications. None of the coverage made this distinction.

Otherwise the reporting of the new research is reasonably accurate, though it did peck out the juiciest morsel – that staring alone is enough to save your chips.

The story comes from a paper published in the Biology Letters scientific journal titled “Herring gulls respond to human gaze direction”.

University of Exeter postgraduate researcher Madeleine Goumas visited seaside spots around Cornwall including Falmouth, St Ives and Newquay to test local birds. The aim was to see if urban gulls, which are increasingly under threat, really are a nuisance and if they can respond to “human behavioural cues” such as gaze direction.

A test subject held out a bag of chips and the approach time of gulls was measured both when the experimenter looked directly at the bird or looked away. The research team found that only 36 per cent of 74 targeted gulls actually approached the food.

When birds did come forward, they took “significantly longer” – 21 seconds on average – when the researchers were staring at them.

But the sample size was small. A cursory glance at the top lines of the coverage strongly suggested that the findings of the study were conclusive. They were not. Crucially the study concluded that although small changes in human behaviour can affect birds, their reaction varies between individual birds.

In other words, while staring down one herring gull might put it off thieving your snack, other birds might not be so timid.

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