Why do gulls stare at their feet?

Ever wanted to know more about the research taking place over at the Shoal Marine Laboratory? Well, some of the work being done investigates the lives of animals which are ubiquitous on the Isles of Shoals.

Keith Mueller, who also runs the site New England Coastal Birds, reports that gulls he has tagged in Rhode Island actually travel quite widely. As he writes, one young bird named V57:

has traveled a long distance for its short life:  it was banded as a chick in July 2012 and was seen at Brownsville Municipal Landfill in Texas in February 2013, then in at Reeds Beach in Burleigh, NJ in May 2013, and now at Rosenhayn [near Deerfield, NJ].

Work studying the gulls at Appledore Island has taken place since 2004 when a bird banding project began. Lead by Dr. Julie Ellis, from Tufts University, it has an important aim. As she writes in her description of the research:

The overarching, long-term goals of this study are to understand the interactions between Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, their population trends in the Gulf of Maine, and the effects that these two species have on coastal marine communities of New England.

You can follow the day-to-day findings and lives of the gulls on a blog about her research with the birds: The Gulls of Appledore Island. The bird bands look like this:

Bird Y30 in flight, showing off his band (Photo courtesy of Keith Mueller).

Bird Y30 in flight, showing off his band (Photo courtesy of Keith Mueller).

Another great question posed on Dr. Ellis’s blog asks readers why seagulls look at their feet. One comment by Phil explains:

I did read (somewhere) that gulls stare at the ground when they’re torn between two different courses of action and they’re not immediately sure what to do. For example, a gull may see a human with food and be unsure whether to flee a potential predator (as would be the natural response), or approach closer because the gull has learned through experience that some humans will give free food to gulls. It’s like a pause for consideration – maybe something similar to a human scratching his nose or picking beneath his fingernails when in an uncomfortable situation instead of taking action. Or something like that.

This seems like a really interesting idea. However, other hypotheses exist. Niko Tinbergen, author of the The Herring Gull’s World (which you can stop by the Rutledge Marine Lab to borrow next summer), explains the following in his section “Care of the Body Surface”(pages 41-42):

Lastly, I have often noticed a type of behavior which might have to do with keeping the feet clean.  In the breeding colony, gulls can often be seen looking down at their feet quite intently, as if inspecting them. Usually nothing more happens, but occasionally they may gently peck at them.  However, I never succeeded in making sure that they picked up anything; if they did, the particles must have been tiny.  Yet the deliberate nature of their looking down to the feet suggests that is has some function.

Want to learn more? Then visit Dr. Ellis’s amazing Web site. Also, let us know why you think the gulls look at their feet in our comments below!

Having trouble with the hyperlink above. Find Dr. Ellis’s research blog here: http://gullsofappledore.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/a-jersey-gull-two-farewells-and-m23-coming-home-to-roost-and-nest/

Find more of Keith Mueller’s work at his site: http://coastalbirds2.blogspot.ca/search?updated-max=2013-10-08T15:04:00-07:00&max-results=15

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One thought on “Why do gulls stare at their feet?

  1. As a lighthouse keeper on an island off the coast of Massachusetts I have also noticed the rather bizarre habit that gulls seem to have of starring at either their feet or the ground for a few seconds. More than just a glance. I have often wondered why that did this and that question still goes unanswered. It’s almost like they feel something and look down to see what it is although I can never see anything there but feet and whatever they are standing on. Just weird. Almost like they can’t believe that those feet belong to them.

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