Seagull: resourceful, inquisitive, intelligent ... and very underrated. Ecologist-with-a-camera Vanessa Stephen is taking a look at the crafty foraging strategies of this clever scavenger. 

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Anyone who's ever had fish and chips on the seashore will know about the cunning of seagulls. Birds are not usually afforded much intelligence but there are many species that know exactly what they are doing and can learn, remember and work cooperatively – which is exactly what those chip-thieving seagulls do.

When they’re not relying on the food we humans have dropped or discarded, gulls have to go out and forage for themselves ... and they’ve come up with some rather amazing techniques.

Rain dance

It’s easily overlooked (because seagulls are easily overlooked), but if you sit and watch for a while you might be lucky enough to spot it. A gull (or several of them) will repeatedly stamp its feet in a rhythmic pattern, stop, inspect the ground and then repeat the process. What's it doing? It's mimicking the sound of rain. The pitter-patter of raindrops hitting the ground is usually a signal for worms and other soil dwellers to come out from below. But when that sound is the con of a clever gull, it usually spells the end for the worm.  

Grab ‘n smash 

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A lot of very tasty food around the seashore happens to come in a hard shell (which is there precisely for protection from the sharp beaks and insatiable appetites of seabirds). If you’ve ever tried to open a mussel or an oyster without a knife, you’ll know how tricky it can be. But the gulls have found a way around this problem as well – despite having no hands. Firstly, they will find the perfect mollusk, pry it from the rocks and then fly to a favourite site – usually a large, flat rock or even a roof.

Once there, they will take to the air, and judging the correct height, will hover for a moment while they take aim and then drop their prize to fall against the rocks below. They will repeat this grab 'n smash process, carefully judging the height needed, until the shell finally breaks and the meat inside is exposed – but not scattered. 

It might seem like a lot of effort for a small mollusk, but in fact it’s an incredible tool to have and allows the birds access to a range of readily available high-protein food. Not bad for a brain the size of a pea!