Article image

Seagulls are much more intelligent than most people think

Those squawking birds dive-bombing for your fries at the beach may seem like nothing more than feathered delinquents. But recent research has revealed that seagulls are remarkably intelligent, and there’s much more to these pesky birds than meets the eye. Turns out, those “criminal” acts might just be signs of incredible intelligence and adaptability.

Why are intelligent seagulls flocking to our cities?

Seagulls aren’t moving inland just for a change of scenery. Prof. Paul Graham of the University of Sussex explains it’s a matter of survival.

Shrinking natural habitats, threats like avian flu, and dwindling fish stocks are forcing them to seek out new sources of food. Our cities, with overflowing trash cans and discarded snacks, provide a tempting alternative.

“When we see behaviors we think of as mischievous or criminal – almost, we’re seeing a really clever bird implementing very intelligent behavior,” said Prof Graham. “I think we need to learn how to live with them.”

Seagulls are intelligent and smart

Don’t be fooled by a gull’s clumsy appearance! Prof. Graham explains they’re capable of sophisticated learning.

Herring gulls can watch their older peers, figuring out how to identify and obtain food in an urban setting. Over time, they develop clever tactics to liberate food from our bins or right out of our hands.

“They learn about which items that are discarded might be food and they’ve probably learned that by observing older birds,” explains Prof. Graham.

So, the next time you see a gull brazenly pinching your hot dog, give it begrudging respect – that’s a resourceful survivor taking advantage of its environment.

Seagulls: Masters of adaptation and intelligence

Seagulls showcase a variety of intelligent behaviors that reveal their cognitive abilities.


One of the most striking examples of their intelligence is their use of tools. Seagulls have been observed using pieces of bread as bait to lure fish, a clear demonstration of problem-solving skills and an understanding of cause and effect.

Memory power

These birds possess a remarkable memory, allowing them to return to places where they have previously found food. This ability not only speaks to their navigational skills but also to their capacity to learn from experience and adapt their behavior accordingly.

Additionally, seagulls have developed a strategy to follow fishing boats, capitalizing on human activities to find feeding opportunities. This behavior shows their ability to observe, learn, and take advantage of patterns in human behavior.


Communication is another area where the intelligent seagulls exhibit complex behavior. They use a range of signals and calls to share information, warn of dangers, or coordinate with each other, indicating a sophisticated level of social interaction.

Moreover, their use of the environment to aid in feeding, such as dropping hard-shelled prey from heights to break them open, demonstrates an innovative use of natural tools.


Seagulls also adapt their feeding strategies based on human activity patterns, adjusting their feeding times and locations to optimize their chances of finding food.

They have been known to work together to distract predators or scavengers from their nests, showing an understanding of teamwork and collective defense.

Their intelligence is a testament to the complex interplay between wildlife and urban environments, revealing how animals adapt to and navigate the challenges of human-dominated landscapes.

Intelligent seagulls in peril

While some urban gull populations might seem to be thriving, the overall outlook for these birds is concerning. Gull populations across the UK are seriously declining.

All six of the main gull species are considered to be under threat. In the case of the herring gull, numbers are so low they’re on the conservation red list.

“I don’t think people realise that the numbers, especially of our breeding gulls, have been declining,” stressed Dawn Balmer of the British Trust for Ornithology.

How can we help the intelligent seagulls?

Reducing the friction between humans and gulls in urban areas is achievable through a few straightforward, practical measures. Here’s how we can minimize conflict:

Upgrade waste management

Investing in larger, more robust public waste bins with secure lids is crucial. This will significantly reduce the opportunities gulls have to scavenge for food scraps, decreasing their incentive to flock to urban areas.

Personal accountability

We must take responsibility for how we dispose of our waste, particularly food scraps. Avoid creating unintentional “outdoor buffets” by ensuring that food waste is always properly discarded in secure containers.

Foster awareness 

Public education campaigns can raise awareness about how our actions impact local wildlife, including gulls. By emphasizing the importance of not feeding gulls and properly securing trash, we can promote respectful cohabitation.

If you want to do more, consider participating in the Winter Gull Survey (WinGS). Volunteers help gather population data to inform conservation efforts.

Emma Caulfield, who runs WinGS, emphasizes, “They’re very charismatic creatures and definitely get a bad rap. But they are part of our natural world and they’re just taking advantage of the hand that’s been dealt them.”

Let’s change our perspective

It’s important to understand that the intelligent seagulls, like any wild animal, are driven by survival instincts. Instead of viewing them as pests, we need to acknowledge their cunning and resilience.

The more we understand the struggles they face, the better equipped we’ll be to coexist peacefully. After all, whether we like it or not, seagulls are our new feathered neighbors.

More about the intelligent seagulls

Seagulls, often simply called “gulls,” belong to the family Laridae. This family encompasses a wide variety of species, with a global distribution that includes almost every part of the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, including all the major oceans.

While commonly associated with coastal regions, many species have adapted to inland environments, including urban areas, showcasing their versatility and adaptability.

Diversity and adaptation

There are over 50 species of gulls, varying greatly in size, habitat, and behaviors. The smallest species, the Little Gull, has a wingspan of just over two feet, while the Great Black-backed Gull, the largest, can have a wingspan up to twice that size.

Their plumage ranges from the striking black and white of the Pacific Gull to the more subdued colors of the Herring Gull.

Gulls are highly adaptable feeders, which contributes to their success in various environments. Their diet includes fish, insects, worms, crustaceans, and even small mammals.

Social behavior

Gulls are social birds, often found in large colonies, especially during breeding seasons. Their social structures are complex, and they exhibit a range of behaviors that indicate high levels of intelligence and adaptability.

For instance, gulls can learn and remember the timing and locations of food sources, including those that are human-provided.

Conservation status

While many gull species have thrived by adapting to human-altered landscapes, some species are facing challenges.

Habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change are impacting their natural feeding and breeding grounds, leading to declines in some populations.

Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure the survival of these adaptable but increasingly vulnerable birds.

Human interaction

Humans and gulls often clash, especially in urban areas where people commonly view gulls as pests because of their scavenging behaviors.

However, understanding gull behavior and ecology can lead to more effective and humane management strategies, reducing conflict and fostering coexistence.

Importance in ecosystems

Gulls play a significant role in their ecosystems as both predators and scavengers. Their feeding habits help control populations of small fish, insects, and other creatures, while their scavenging helps clean up dead animals and organic debris. This dual role underscores the importance of gulls in maintaining healthy, balanced ecosystems.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day