How badly do you want that picnic lunch? Badly enough to stare down a seagull?
Residents and tourists aren’t the only ones flocking to the seashore during this hottest summer on record. Beachgoers bring food, of course, and food brings that most intimidating of pests, the gull.
It’s our own fault, really. The gull isn’t native to the area. Up until the early 20th century, they were winter visitors. It wasn’t until 1931, according to the Mass Audubon Society, that the first great black-backed gull nest was discovered in Salem. No doubt they were drawn here by the aroma of Hobbs popcorn and Lowe’s chop suey sandwiches at the Willows.
Whatever the case, they’re here to stay, and in numbers larger than before. “Their numbers have increased enormously in the past century,” Mass Audubon writes, “partially due to their protection from hunters, but also because of the increase in food sources supplied by people.” In Gloucester, where it often seems like the gulls outnumber residents, that includes the byproduct of the fishing industry.
And as gulls have become more comfortable around people, they often don’t think twice about snatching food from unsuspecting snackers. Social media is littered with photos of people losing their hot dogs, potato chips and ice cream to airborne predators. And it’s happening everywhere. In Gloucester, they’ve been known to abscond with car keys and wallets, like feathered pickpockets.
Researchers and municipal officials across the world have tried in vain to keep the birds in check. In New Jersey, Ocean City is spending more than $2,000 a day to have a private company bring in birds higher on the food chain — falcons, hawks and owls, working in shifts around the clock — to scare gulls from the beach.
Researchers in England, however, have come up with a more direct approach.
A study published last week by the Royal Society, the world’s oldest continuous scientific society, suggested the best way to keep gulls from grabbing your food might be to give them the old steely eye.
Researchers “tested” 74 birds by placing potato chips in front of an experimenter and gauging whether the gulls went for the food. Just 27 of the gulls bit the bait — a factor that the research team attributed to whether the experimenter was looking at the bird.
Which begs the question: Is this the best way to spend your time at the beach, staring down gulls like Clint Eastwood in an Old West showdown, just to hold onto your Doritos?
Maybe, the best approach isn’t to scowl, but to grin and bear it, keep your food covered and, if that fails, bring extra. After all, summer doesn’t last forever.