Readers reply: can seagulls recognise you?

Can seagulls recognise you? My friend swears blind that his local gulls torment him personally. Is there anything in this? Edward Lambourn, Rhyl

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Readers reply

Dr Livingston Seagull, I presume? MrCassandra

I have had experiences in my own garden where a swallow and a mistle thrush have taken to attacking myself and only one of my springer spaniels. They ignored my husband, visitors to the house and even my quieter spaniel. There is no doubt in my mind that they knew me. I was the one most often in the garden, sometimes, on other missions, in the vicinity of their nests. They would set on me when I was nowhere near the nests. Everyone else was ignored, even when they were fairly close to the nests. Cherry Alexander, Ardgay

A happy day was had at the Jersey shore (New Jersey, that is) despite a double-whammy from a seagull while sunbathing. I was “dropped upon” at both 0800 and 1400 hours. Twice, six hours apart. Smack on to my swimsuit. Bad luck, a bird dare or target practice? He knew. B Saltzman, Woodland, California

There is a herring gull that sits every morning on the chimney of the house directly behind ours and shouts loudly at a teenager’s bedroom window until she gets up, opens the window and shouts back. We’ve named him Stephen. scaryoldcortina

I don’t know about seagulls, but I have a blackbird that appears in my garden every time he spots me. I have been feeding him raisins, and he has come to expect a nice juicy breakfast. Geraldine Blake, Worthing

Yes. They pester my neighbour to feed them even when he is on the other side of our village. I’ve seen them tap on the window when they see him in someone else’s house having a cup of tea. BobbleAlong

Yes, without question. Gulls are not just long-lived but very intelligent birds. I live in a flat in Brighton and my outdoor area is a platform built on top of the flat roof of part of an extension at the back of the building. It is slightly below the roof and the chimneys of the main building. For all of my time here (the last six years) a pair of seagulls have nested either on the flat part of the extension next door (separated from my bit by a metal railing with lots of gaps in it) or on the chimney. Their chicks, when they get old enough, inevitably come and wander around my bit of the flat roof. For much of that time I used to smoke and went out on to my platform many times a day and night. The gulls are completely chilled about me being around, they wake up and have a look, and after that ignore me. Even when the chicks are wandering around and I come out on to the platform they keep a weather eye out, but ignore me, as I ignore their chicks. If anyone else comes out, though, they become highly agitated, call alarms the whole time and will even try poo bombing to drive them away. By the way, if that sounds mostly sweet and lovely, the noise and mess is appalling and I’d be very happy if they nested somewhere else! Paul

Is your friend called Cliff? Le74

Not only can seagulls recognise you, they also know where you live (or at least where your car’s parked). John Boyd-Brent

There has been a lot of research into gull behaviour recently. None of the results are particularly surprising to anyone who takes the time to watch them for more than a moment. They quickly become accustomed to those who are likely to be providers but still watch to see food eaten first. So, although they readily pick out the generous types, they withhold trust, preferring to swoop down and eat a half-eaten pasty or the remnants of a bag of chips than an uneaten sandwich. woodworm20

I am a professional ornithologist who was involved in a long-term study of urban gulls nesting on roof tops (herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls – there’s no such thing as a “seagull”). At the start of this study, I and my colleagues trapped some of these gulls (under licence) and put rings and GPS trackers on them to study their behaviour and movements. Needless to say, this did not endear us to the gulls at all. I subsequently made many visits to the same rooftops and the same gulls over several years. The gulls always responded to my presence by immediately alarm-calling and mobbing me, singling me out among other people before I even made it on to the roof. It didn’t matter what clothes I wore or which car I drove. I was sure that the gulls saw me as a particular threat based on my past behaviour, and were able to recognise me, even though sometimes many months went by between visits. In the most extreme example, a male lesser black-backed gull appeared to recognise me and mobbed me as I watched him out of a very high window, where only my face and binoculars would have been visible. I should add that I’m a redhead, so this may make it easier for them.

So in my opinion, the answer for these two species at least is “yes”. Perhaps this guy did something once that his local gulls didn’t approve of, or perhaps his daily commute takes him close to a nest site.

In any case I never experienced a gull making contact when “defending” their nests (they usually just swoop and call). Gulls mobbing people for food are a different story, and this is unfortunately a problem we have created for ourselves by feeding them. Both these species are decreasing at natural colonies and increasing in urban areas, probably because their natural habitats no longer provide them with what they need. Again, this is a problem of our own making and we probably need to learn ways of living harmoniously with these birds. They’re really very interesting. Rebecca Jones

They did some research into whether crows could do it. Used a Dick Cheney face mask and upset crows while wearing it. For a long time after that they would mob anyone sporting the mask. Which suggests it’s a) a fun way to upset visiting politicians, and b) it’s definitely possible that gulls may be able to recognise faces. unclestinky

Let’s reverse the question. Can the Guardian recognise birds? On several occasions I have noticed that the Guardian misidentifies birds or uses photos of the wrong bird to illustrate a story. You used a photo of the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) in a story about Britons’ interaction with “seagulls”. The name is a giveaway. This is a North American bird, with a very large population on the Great Lakes. Most of the submissions are about herring gulls, a species widespread in the British Isles. Not the same thing. Howard Ross, Kingston, Ontario

We have named the herring gull that visits us most mornings as Sebastian. As a fledgling he walked with our dog in the park eating dog snacks and followed us home. My wife can hand-feed him and his wife, Sabina, but both will fly off if I try. Sebastian will often walk into our kitchen through the back door and look up at us, expecting his breakfast. I even found him in the lounge last summer when doors where open. So yes, herring gulls do recognise us and we can recognise them. Sam Coombes

Some years ago a pair of lesser black-backed gulls nested on my chimney. A fairly mature chick fell out of the nest and landed in the garden. I had no way of getting it back to the nest, so I kept it in the garden and fed it on sprats and fish pieces I bought and scrounged from the local fish market, locked it away, safe from neighbours’ cats at night, and eventually, after a couple of weeks, it fledged and flew off. The children named it Lucky. As a reward, the parent birds mobbed me any time I left the house, following me to the local shop and mobbing me when I exited. I was the only one feeding the chick, partly because it had a tendency to bite your fingers, and I was the only one mobbed. None of this I found to be particularly unusual behaviour, assuming that they recognised me and associated me as being a danger to their chick. However, what did surprise me was that, the following year, a pair of lesser black-backed gulls nested on the chimney again and mobbed me (and only me) any time I left the house, despite not losing a chick. I assumed that they were the same pair, that they not only recognised me and saw me as a threat but had retained the memory for a year. The third year they did not return – thankfully! Preston Shalton

Seagulls seem to recognise me as I walk along the beachfront to feed them with food scraps. They spot me from a distance and start to circle me, squawking and fluttering. Whether it is me or the plastic container of scraps I am carrying that is recognised is, perhaps, open for debate. David Litchfield

Definitely recognise me. A few years ago a seagull chick fell out of its nest on our roof. I did the decent thing and put it in a box and climbed a ladder to put it back on the roof. It screamed its head off the whole time, attracting dozens of adult gulls that attacked me incessantly while I was on the ladder. Not content with that, the parents then divebombed me every time I left the house for the rest of the breeding season. And for the next couple of years. Bastards! Mike Patching

Seagulls do recognise specific people. Fred, as I call him, comes down from our roof when I am in our front garden because he knows I will throw him a handful of mealworms, but he never does if it is my husband, neighbours or anyone else outside the front of our house. Chris Callard

Yes. I have a gull friend who arrives every year in April, turns up every morning and runs down the roof when he sees me. Later in the summer his partner and the year’s offspring will join him. He’s particularly loud at 5am. I’m convinced he’s a gull I raised and released 15 years ago, which means he must be pretty old. Merle1

A look at all the various species of gull listed in the Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds suggests that quite a few species routinely live more than 10 years and several longer-lived species live more than 20. ProfessorSogol

Herring gulls (urban subspecies) nest on my roof. When babies start to move about, Mum and Dad will swoop and mob strangers, but not me. Inotrek

Crows I’ve known for years recognise me with or without my bike. When I’m in company they arrive unobtrusively, and it can take a bit to realise. Other birds, such as pigeons and robins can approach if I sit on a bench, and I infer that they often get lucky with humans there. Karendash

I used to feed and raise a few pigeons back when I was in India, they could recognise me pretty well, so it wouldn’t be surprising that gulls could do the same. My mother raised a baby coucal, and the bird recognised her and used to come for visits. paul939

Yes, absolutely. In fact, not only can they recognise you but they can sense your emotions, just like any other animal. Craig R Bell

You really must be very gullible to believe this … Alejandro Larrosa

While I’m not able to confirm if seagulls can remember human faces, I can confirm that a seagull shitting on you while on a first date will not in fact lead to a second date. I can also confirm that a person will be able to recognise you after almost 20 years and introduce you to the group as “that guy the seagull shat on”. moemanmoe

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