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Stare Down a Gull to Protect Your Food, Science Says

Animals
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There's nothing that ruins a sunset walk on the boardwalk like a flock of greedy seagulls circling your funnel cake. Before you start to imagine yourself under attack in a sea of Hitchcock-esque pecks and flapping wings, remember that science has your back. New research has a strategy for protecting your food next time you're at the beach. Just give them your best death stare.


The feathered thieves are much more likely to go for the theft when they can swoop in unseen, avoiding eye contact with their victim, as the Irish Times reported. Staring at the birds makes them much less likely to steal your food, found the study, "Herring Gulls Respond To Human Gaze Direction" published in the journal Biology Letters.

"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 lead author Madeleine Goumas, from of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at Exeter's Penryn Campus, as the BBC reported. "Of those that did approach, most took longer when they were being watched. Some wouldn't even touch the food at all, although others didn't seem to notice that a human was staring at them."

The researchers conducted their study at various popular spots along the English coast. They put just over half a pound of french fries in a bag on the ground and waited to see how long it would take the gulls to nab them. The scientist then crouched down a short distance away from the bag of fries and timed how long it took for a gull to take the first peck. In half the experiments, the researcher faced the bird head on, in the other half they turned away, according to the Independent.

"On average, gulls took 21 seconds longer to approach the food with a human staring at them," according to a university press release. Yet, the bigger surprise may have been how few gulls actually went for Goumas' fries. She initially tried to test 74 herring gulls, but only 19 of them, or 26 percent, went for the food.

"The effect was clearer with some individuals than others," Goumas said, as The Guardian reported. "For the most part the gulls were wary of me when I was watching them, but there were a few individuals that were quick to approach even when I was looking at them."

The researchers offered some takeaways not only for beachgoers, but anyone around gulls as the birds start to move their way into urban centers.

"Our study took place in coastal towns in Cornwall, and especially now, during the summer holidays and beach barbecues, we are seeing more gulls looking for an easy meal," said Neeltje Boogert, an author on the paper, in a press release. "We therefore advise people to look around themselves and watch out for gulls approaching, as they often appear to take food from behind, catching people by surprise. It seems that just watching the gulls will reduce the chance of them snatching your food."

Goumas added, "People can take steps to prevent it. When you eat, being against a wall that blocks a gull's access from behind, or just keeping an eye out, being more vigilant, reduces your chances of having your food taken," as The Guardian reported.

Next, the researchers will examine how eating humans' food affects gulls and their chicks in the long term, according to a University of Exeter press release.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.