Seagulls are not aggressive. Or rather, they only do what they must to survive - just like humans.
Why would a seagull attack a human being for no reason, like so many people say they do? We are ten times bigger than they are, are much more powerful and could easily hurt them or even kill them.
If seagulls become aggressive, they have a reason to do so, and it is usually to protect their young or their nests, so if a seagull is “dive-bombing” you, you are probably too close to her chicks. She doesn’t want to kill you, she just wants you to go away because she feels threatened by you.
Seagulls’ interaction with humans happens for mainly two reasons: food and nesting.
Seagull populations developed around coastal areas where fishing towns would provide them plenty of food. Nowadays seagulls have adapted to living in non-fishing towns, where they can find food that humans throw away. This food can come from various situations, such as:
- leaving food unattended on tables outside restaurants or cafés;
- putting food waste in bins that are too full and will allow seagulls to fish it out;
- humans feeding seagulls.
You will probably find that if you’re eating food outside, seagulls will come to you and fly around, stop and look at you, and might even try to take your food. If this happens, please remember that they are not attacking you but trying to get to your food. This can be especially significant when there’s a group of seagulls. Seagulls are very intelligent when it comes to catching food. For example, they know how to “charm” worms by stomping their feet on the soil to attract them to the surface and catch them. They also know that in order to crack open shellfish, they need to drop it from a certain height onto a hard surface to crack it open. It’s no wonder they also learned to steal food from other animals, like us.
What can I do?
In these situations, the best thing to do is to keep food out of sight (e.g., only open your food container to take food out and then cover it again). If you can’t avoid having food visible (like ice-cream), keep it close to your body and scare the birds away with your other arm. Remember you are much bigger than a seagull, and if you move towards them, they will be scared.
You can also leave the area where they are, as it is very unlikely they will chase you.
In any case, please try not to panic. Since they are targeting your food and not you, in the worst case scenario, you will lose your food to them.
Seagulls, like other animals (including humans), will try to protect their young. They tend to nest in high and quiet areas, where predators can’t reach them, but occasionally (rarely) they will nest at ground level. Also, when their young come to a certain age, they come down from the nest and roam around the ground for a week or two before they start to fly.
On both these cases, if humans get too close to them, the parents might feel the need to protect their offspring and scare the threat away. When this happens, most of the time seagulls will circle above you, dive towards you and then fly up again. In some occasions, if they are in a group and/or feeling bold enough, they might even poke your head and cause you some pain. These are extreme cases and not very common or likely to happen.
Again, remember you are much bigger than a seagull and they are certainly more afraid of you than you are of them.
What can I do?
The first thing you should do in a situation like this is to identify what is stressing out the seagulls, i.e., where the young or nests are. Once you know what they are protecting, you can then move away. As soon as you leave the area, they will not chase you.
In the extreme case of seagulls actually poking your head, if you have an umbrella or some other object, you can hold it up above your head. Seagulls will attack the tallest part of what they perceive as the threat (thus taking the lowest risk for themselves) and will target your umbrella instead of your head.
Unlike with food, this behaviour is only observed when seagulls are nesting or have young (late spring and early summer), so you don’t have to worry about it the whole year.