Why seagulls are not angry – just ‘misunderstood’

Angry seagullImage copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Don’t hate him – it could be the junk food making him aggressive

Junk food, it seems, is not only bad for humans, it might also be making birds more aggressive.

Gulls are being studied by a PhD student from the University of St Andrews to find out if living in the city is changing their behaviour.

Academic Rebecca Lakin is studying the impact of urban environments on young gulls.

Why seagulls are not angry – just ‘misunderstood’
Why seagulls are not angry – just ‘misunderstood’

She thinks understanding why they act the way they do might change our perception of the birds.

Rebecca, 24, is a seabird researcher and conservationist and is currently researching Herring & Lesser black-backed gulls, two of the UK’s most misunderstood yet threatened seabirds.

Image copyrightSam Oakes
Image caption Rebecca Lakin is studying gulls on a remote Scottish island

She will compare the diets of “healthy” gulls on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth with the urban diets of birds in Aberdeen.

While island birds feast on fish and clams, the city birds have adapted to what is available, which could be a diet of chips, bread and ice cream.

The research will explore how the food the gulls digest may impact them later in life.

It is hoped the results from the project might explain why Aberdeen’s gulls can be so aggressive.

Rebecca told BBC Radio Scotland’s Kaye Adams Programme: “I am currently carrying out fieldwork trying to catch adult gulls to deploy GPS tagging to see where they are going and where they are foraging, so it will be some really interesting data for my PhD project.

“I’m trying to see the difference between urban gulls and those out in places like the Isle of May.

“I’m looking at how diet plays an important role in how chicks raised in those different environments develop.

“I’m asking, does diet and the fact gulls feed off anthropogenic food sources, and high-fat, high-carb food like fish, bread and ice cream have an effect on the physiology and behaviour of gull chicks as they develop?”

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Is it the food and the environment which makes these birds so grumpy?

Rebecca has found that aggression in the city birds actually comes from natural instincts.

Aggression often takes place when parents are defending their chicks, or when young gulls face a shortage of food. Both lead to food being stolen or the sometimes frightening “swooping” action of the birds.

Rebecca finds herself in a minority in that she actually likes the birds.

Image copyrightSam Oakes
Image caption As well as working on the Isle of May, Rebecca is studying gulls in urban areas

“I do love gulls. They are such a fascinating species. They show really interesting behaviour and I think they are a bit misunderstood.

“They are vey clever and they have adapted really well to life in urban areas.

“Yes, they like to steal our food and they can be quite aggressive. But the fact they are able to take advantage of every opportunity they can get is just really interesting.

“So I am trying to understand the mechanisms behind this behaviour and see where it is coming from.”

Rebecca’s research is detailed at

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