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How to Stop Seagulls From Stealing Your Food

Beth loves to travel and explore new places. She hopes you'll be inspired to visit them too.

A seagull helps itself to a tasty meal.

A seagull helps itself to a tasty meal.

Look Out! Seagulls Swoop on Tourists

What could be more relaxing than a city break? Welcoming locals, delicious food, retail therapy, great music, and maybe even some wildlife.

But not all wildlife is welcome, especially not seagulls far from the sea. Urban seagulls are now a problem in many towns and cities. They are used to people, and they have learned to target humans and their food outdoors. They are aggressive thieves and swoop in and steal whatever tidbits they can. It’s easier for them than hunting their natural prey.

The problem is so serious that some restaurants in the United States and Europe now offer customers a water pistol to use against the birds. The feathers of a seagull are waterproof, they are sea birds after all, so using a water pistol won’t harm them.

However, there are more nuisance seagulls than there are free water pistols, so I think it’s a good idea to be prepared and buy your own. I use this water gun when eating al fresco, and it has proved to be worth its weight in gold on more than one occasion. It's small and light and fits easily into my purse. There is nothing more likely to destroy a romantic moment than a nuisance seagull snatching a tasty morsel from your plate. So be prepared.

Do Seagulls Really Steal Your Chips? Yes, They Do!

Venice, Italy, is one of many places that suffers from nuisance gulls, and tourists have been complaining about them. With so many visitors eating outside, the city’s piazzas provide easy meals for these flying thieves.

The Venice Hoteliers Association had a brainstorming session to think of ways to deter the birds. Seagulls are a protected species in most of Europe and North America, so simply taking a potshot at them is not an option. “As soon as guests get up, perhaps to go to the buffet, seagulls pounce on the food and take it away,” one hotelier said. “We are forced to intervene continuously to change tablecloths, plates and glasses, which they often break. Some customers laugh about it, but others get angry.”

They considered hiring a falconer to set a bird of prey on the gulls, but the cost of this method is very high. The most economic option, which has been adopted by The Gritti Palace, as well as the Hotel Monaco & Grand Canal, is to issue guests water pistols. The hotels use orange water guns as it is claimed that the birds dislike this color, although there is no scientific evidence for this.

The city is built on a series of islands. It has freshwater canals running through it, and salty seawater close by. Some seagulls have moved inland; they use tall buildings as cliffs for nesting and lookout points.

Ocean City Uses Predator Species

Ocean City, New Jersey, is another place that has been disrupted by nuisance seagulls. It has implemented the bird-of-prey method, and it is the first area in North America to do this. A local falconer patrols the boardwalk and beach area 12 hours a day during the peak tourist season. He has either a Harris hawk, an owl, or a falcon on his arm. The program has been successful in scaring away aggressive gulls, but it is expensive, and so it may not be a viable long-term solution to the seagull problem.

This cheeky seagull asks for food by tapping on a bedroom window.

This cheeky seagull asks for food by tapping on a bedroom window.

Can You Outstare a Seagull?

Seagulls are both scavengers and predators. They are also kleptoparasites, meaning that they steal food from other species. Gulls in urban environments have adapted this thieving behavior to target humans. Their bad attitude results in numerous complaints and causes problems for tourist attractions. Attempts to resolve the issue have focused largely on lethal control or deterrents, like birds of prey, but these are expensive and often ineffective. So is there another cheaper, more effective solution?

Scientific Research

Research carried out in 2018 suggested that staring at a seagull can make them less bold. Researchers from the University of Exeter, UK, lured the bird thieves by placing a bag of French fries on the ground. They compared how long it took for a seagull to approach when a human was watching them, compared to when the human looked away.

The difference was measurable; on average, gulls took 21 seconds longer to approach the food when a human was staring at them. However, the sample size was small. Out of 74 attempts, the researchers only managed to record 27 birds approaching the food, and of these only 19 completed both the “looking at” and “looking away” tests. The rest flew away and were not cheeky enough to be tempted by the fries.

“Gulls are often seen as aggressive and willing to take food from humans, so it was interesting to find that most wouldn’t even come near during our tests,” said researcher Madeleine Goumas, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter University. “Of those that did approach, most took longer when they were being watched.” This reluctance to approach is a natural reaction to a perceived threat and is a common defensive action exhibited by all animals and birds.

Seagull Facts

  • There are around 50 species of seagulls, and they are found all over the world.
  • They live near water as well as inland.
  • They are mainly scavengers but are also predators.
  • They are omnivores; they eat almost anything.

Resources

Herring gulls respond to human gaze direction. Published in The Royal Society Journal, August 2019, Volume 15 Issue 8.

Seagulls in Venice can snatch a meal right out of your hands. Texas Public Radio, March 24 2022.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.