Although gulls are federally protected, it can feel like the real endangered species on the beach is lunch. Clever gulls maraud where food is plentiful, and they become a nuisance when they learn that fries are easier to hunt than crabs. Some restaurants are attempting to fight back with new policies, but at summer’s peak, the street toughs of the skies hardly care.
It was a sunny day at Castle Island recently when Dorchester resident Sean George stopped by Sullivan’s for a double cheeseburger.
“I wasn’t sitting down 10 seconds,” George recalled. He felt a sudden and heavy weight on his back, as if his friend were pulling him down from behind. “It was a big huge seagull on my shoulder,” he said. The bird snatched the burger from his hands.
George, suddenly a perch for what felt like 40 pounds of bird, took a swing at it.
“He jumped off me onto the table, knocked off my french fries and my soda, and just swallowed the burger, looking at me,” he said. “I’d say it was two bites.”
Sullivan’s closed its outdoor seating late last month. Caution tape and orange cones marked the patio like a crime scene. “TABLES CLOSED: PLEASE COVER YOUR FOOD” and “BEWARE SEAGULLS” read signs outside the restaurant. (Sullivan’s has since reopened its outdoor seating, though there is much less of it now.)
“The seagulls are very, very rambunctious. They’ll literally take the food out of your hand,” said Heather Snow, a cook at Anne Marie’s Surfside, at Gloucester’s Wingaersheek Beach. The restaurant’s policy refuses requests to replace food that has been stolen by gulls. “Anne Marie’s Surfside is not responsible for seagull food theft,” read an illustrated poster tacked near the ordering window.
As that kitchen broke down for the day, a gull perched on the corner of the building, side-eyeing Snow, while she informed on the avians.
“People will come back and be like, ‘Hey, the seagull stole my food,’” Snow said. “If we replaced everyone’s food, we’d kind of be out of business. We had to put the sign up and tell you just to be careful and cover it, because they’ll snatch it out of your hand, run away, and look at you as they’re running away.”
The creepy eye contact adds insult to injury, but it’s not as if the team could ask the gulls to behave. So the only course was to ask the humans.
“It’s actually kind of funny, but the food’s expensive,” she said. “And they’re, you know, making people uncomfortable.”
Snow said that people have laughed at the sign, but then returned when a gull sniped their lunch.
“I feel bad sometimes with the little kids, because they’ll cry,” said Snow. “Like when they steal their chips and stuff.”
Snow said it seems as if the birds return with friends in tow.
“Do they tell other birds? They must,” Snow mused. As the daylight waned, just a few birds lingered, surveilling for snacks. But on busy days, it can feel as if word gets around.
The birds we often call seagulls are, in Massachusetts, most commonly one of two gull species: the herring gull, and the great black-backed gull. John Herbert, Mass Audubon’s director of bird conservation, said that while gulls can’t really smell so well, they have keen eyesight. Gulls lay eggs in island colonies, and do not observe distinct feeding territories, but cruise to spot likely food sources. The term “bird-brained” is a misnomer, said Herbert. As animal intelligence goes, they’re actually pretty smart. Increased coastal development and the reduction in open landfills means gulls set their sights on restaurants, where the getting is good.
“And then all of a sudden, two minutes later, you have 40 gulls,” he said. “They’re keeping an eye out for the easy meal. It’s because they don’t have grocery stores to go to, so either they’re in the marsh trying to catch a little crab, or you know, they can go steal someone’s chicken sandwich.”
Herbert noted some studies on gulls that determined the birds prefer food that has been touched by humans, as well as others that determined that staring at the birds might deter them from snack-snatching.
It can be tempting to commune with nature by tossing a gull a fry. But experts say we’re teaching the birds that humans are gullible. The more generous the beachgoers, the pushier the birds. And that reliance can even develop into aggression.
“We really encourage people not to feed the gulls,” said Andrew Vitz, Massachusetts’s state ornithologist. “We say that with all wildlife pretty much . . . 99 percent of the time, it doesn’t have the nutrition of their wild foods.” Malnutrition is one outcome, and scientists have observed a decline in both species’ numbers in recent years, especially due to landfill closures. But another problem is that these can be some really big birds.
“If they start expecting handouts from people . . . not only are they going to try to take your french fries or your bun or whatever, they might actually get more aggressive than that and start nipping at your fingers,” he said.
George considers himself lucky. “That thing could just take your eye out,” he said.
Once the birds are there in droves, they won’t stop at your potato chips, said Vitz. Invited to the beach, their appetites will extend to other convenient food sources, such as plover eggs and chicks.
“They are wild animals. . . . You can’t exactly predict what they’re going to do,” he said.
In Gloucester, Snow said even she has felt tempted to feed gulls an occasional fry, but she knows better.
“They’ll stand along the peak of the whole roof,” said Snow. “Just waiting to beeline towards people. Then they just flock and you can’t get rid of them.”
Snow gestured to the bird keeping watch a few feet away, even as the parking lot emptied.
“There are no flies on them,” she said. “They’d probably eat them anyway.”