A stink eye will prevent gulls from stealing your food

August 11, 2019 • 2:45 pm

Here’s an interesting result: gulls will not steal your food while you’re looking at them, but if you look away, even if the food is close to you, many of them try to nab it. This is SCIENCE, and is described in the following news report in Science and the original paper on which the report is based (click on the two screenshots at bottom to access either). But perhaps it’s best to just watch the video that very clearly demonstrates the “stink-eye effect”.

What intrigued me is that gulls clearly watch people’s faces and see which way they’re looking, and can respond to that cue in an adaptive way.  In other words, gulls know what a face is and what it means with respect to getting noms.

The News and Views:

The original paper from Biology Letters:



37 thoughts on “A stink eye will prevent gulls from stealing your food

  1. I never thought I would hate a species… But seagulls are getting there… If only they wouldn’t make such horrible and nail-scratching-chalkboar-y sounds I could forgive their cheekiness. But those horrible noises…. ARGH!

    1. Yeah, the big gulls (black-backed gulls, here in NZ) are thugs and bullies, and easy to hate.

      And they do know which way you’re looking. If I’m walking up the beach and a big gull is near my track I alter course towards them and stare at them as I approach and they do notice – when I’m as far as twenty feet away they start to walk in the other direction, faster and faster as I continue to approach them. Until they take off. They take no notice of other beachgoers who are ignoring them.


    2. They were singing their dawn chorus on the wheelie bins at god-awful o’clock this morning. A curse on their feathers!

      1. Yes. They understand human beach behavior. Once the humans are distracted enough and far away from their stuff, the monkeys steal everything — food, backpacks, cameras, clothes. Everything.

    1. The vervet monkeys in South Africa are truly criminal and vulgarly sexist at breakfast time. They watch the outdoor tables until a man gets up and leaves his wife and daughter. Then he slips in and grabs a croissant or bagel and leaps away lickety-split. They have learned that men and older boys tend to guard the table, while women tend to recoil.

      1. I saw one in Kruger National Park stealing a yogurt, opening it and eating it. It was interesting and fun to watch. It was not my yogurt though.

    1. Am reminded of how elementary grade students are predisposed to say to one another, “Quit looking at me!”

  2. The way to learn to love gulls is to lean over the back rail of a ship and watch as they float and glide behind you. (Mind your sandwich.)

    1. Yep, I have had the pleasure of working in machinery than got me up high enough and moved fast enough to be able to see them up close.

      There is an enormous variety in the way they flap their wings and glide and dive and hover and zoom.

      1. I’ve got to admit that, as they hover in the updraft at the edge of the pipe deck or compression module, they do look rather magnificent.
        Then they unload a belly full of splatter, once they’ve judged the wind strength, drag, and onlooker location. Glaswegians consider this to be a sign of good luck. Which says more about Glaswegian’s histories than it does about the fortune telling abilities of Laridae.

  3. Does it help to growl “I know what you’re thinking, punk” à la Clint Eastwood while you’re giving the gull the stink-eye?

  4. Birds are smart. Dogs (don’t know about cats) ‘know’ when no one is looking as well. We have one that is perfectly polite in the kitchen, even when there’s food on the counter. Leave the room with food unattended (and not sufficiently placed far enough from the counter’s edge) and the food is soon dog food. Gotta love it.

    1. Cats do this too but ‘no one’ means no cats or people or perhaps no creatures. I’ve always imagined that they have a sense of competing with others for food. If all other creatures are out of the room, it’s not an issue.

      They have complicated algorithms for determining whether it is ok to take food when others are present. One of our cats will regularly nose the other out of the way as he knows his ‘brother’ won’t oppose it. He also takes food from me because he knows I will occasionally allow him to take it and, even if I don’t let him have it, I only fend him off gently. He won’t take my wife’s food in her presence because he knows she never allows it.

  5. This is SCIENCE… But perhaps it’s best to just watch the video that very clearly demonstrates the “stink-eye effect”.

    Perhaps it would be best to wait for a pre-registered replication. After all, this is Science.

  6. Gulls are sneak thieves, bullies and cowards. They won’t take food from someone bigger than them when that person is watching.


  7. Changes in waste management practices mean that much less food is tipped in landfill sites than was once the case (at least in western Europe and the UK) but gulls have long exploited landfill sites as a feeding resource. Another example of their smartness is that they apparently learned that there would be no deliveries of waste on Sundays so didn’t bother to show up on that day but foraged elsewhere instead. They could not get their heads around other public holidays however and on a ‘bank holiday Monday’ would sit around the tip waiting for lorries that would not come.

  8. I have a vague recollection of corvids (or squirrels?) checking around to see if rivals are watching them before hiding/retrieving food. Would this be a related behaviour?
    Or is just being stared down just uncomfortable for all species with faces?

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