Skip to main content

Herring gulls respond to human gaze direction

Herring gulls respond to human gaze direction

Madeleine Goumas, Isabella Burns, Laura A. Kelley, and Neeltje J. Boogert. Biosciences, University of Exeter, Cornwall.

Key findings:

  • Most seagulls will not approach a food source in close proximity of people, even if they look like they are interested in the food.
  • Food-snatching behaviour is likely to be conducted by only a few individual gulls.
  • Staring at seagulls reduces the likelihood of them approaching food.
  • Increased vigilance by humans may reduce food snatching behaviour


Interactions between herring gulls and humans are increasingly leading to conflict and may have the potential to exacerbate population declines of this species. Characterizing the nature of these interactions is therefore an important first step in mitigating negative effects on both humans and gulls. Based on our research in coastal towns in Cornwall, we found that the majority of gulls in urban areas would not approach a food source placed in close proximity to a human, despite many displaying interest in the food. Those that did approach were also more hesitant in the presence of other people and gulls. This suggests that most gulls may be too fearful to engage in food-snatching and that this behaviour is likely to be conducted by a select few individuals.

We found that human gaze direction significantly affected gulls' latency to approach the food: gulls took less time to approach when the experimenter was facing away versus looking directly at them. This demonstrates that gulls use behavioural cues from humans when making foraging decisions in urban environments, and that they find human gaze aversive.
Gulls’ approach times varied widely, with some touching the food within 10 seconds in both treatments, whereas others did not complete their approach when human gaze was directed towards them. The difference in approach time between treatments was largest for those gulls that took the longest time to approach when being watched, indicating variation in the degree to which gulls find human gaze aversive. This may be because of differences in attention towards the experimenter's eyes or head, variation in boldness or cognitive abilities, or through associative learning during previous interactions with humans. If human gaze aversion is a learned response, those individuals that have been chased away from food by humans may learn to associate human eye contact with potential danger. Alternatively, gaze aversion may be present upon hatching, with gulls being able to generalize the salient features of a vertebrate eye.

Gulls may have taken more time to approach food while being looked at because they can take another's perspective. However, such perspective-taking remains difficult to disentangle from simpler cognitive processes such as associative learning. Gaze aversion, and gaze sensitivity more broadly, occurs in all three amniote classes and, as such, may have deep evolutionary origins. Further work that focuses on differences in gaze sensitivity at the individual, population and species level will improve our understanding of the development and evolution of gaze-mediated behaviour. Additionally, other cognitive mechanisms allowing gulls to adapt to anthropogenic environments may be important in understanding and mitigating conflict between humans and gulls.

In summary, our results indicate that the majority of urban herring gulls are unlikely to approach food when humans are nearby. Those gulls that did approach responded to subtle behavioural cues from the experimenter, suggesting that increased vigilance by humans may reduce food-snatching behaviour. Understanding individual variation in behaviour, and responses towards human behavioural cues more generally, may help inform conservation and control strategies for managing conflict between humans and wildlife in a wide range of taxa.

»Read more on the Royal Society Publishing website