Gulls, or seagulls as they’re widely known, are a very successful family of birds that includes some 54 species distributed over most of the world. Gulls are adept scavengers that regularly prove their abilities by cheekily stealing food from right under our eyes!
As natural scavengers, gulls have a flexible diet that allows them to pick and choose from whatever available food they can get their beaks into, so what do seagulls eat?
Seagulls are extremely unfussy omnivores and are famed for eating whatever they want, whenever they want. Their flexible approach to feeding sees them consume a huge range of fish, insects, small animals, carrion and human leftovers. Whilst they’re well-known for stealing food from humans, seagulls are actually exceptionally adaptable hunters in the wild.
A seagull's diet includes everything from human leftovers and carrion to fish, crustaceans, insects, invertebrates and many other small animals, as well as all manner of plant food. They’re totally non-fussy and are adept at both hunting and scavenging.
Seagulls have a few tricks up their sleeves - read on to discover more about the feeding habits of this impressively adaptable bird.
Seagull eating a muscle on the beach
Seagulls eat fish as well as crustaceans, gastropods, molluscs, plankton and krill. They’re particularly fond of shellfish such as small shrimps. Gulls are excellent at hunting food from the surface of the water as well as on land, but won’t generally dive beneath the water itself. They’re unfussy with regards to what food they eat in the ocean and will consume sea creatures both alive and as carrion.
A Seagull eating a fish from the ocean
Gulls are opportunistic scavengers all throughout the year, but since some species tend to move inland towards warmer environments during winter, they tend to consume more terrestrial food. This is when gulls are likely to scavenge food from farmer’s fields or raid human leftovers and rubbish inland.
Most gulls move inland during the winter months to find food
A seagull’s terrestrial diet involves a high proportion of scavenged food including carrion and human leftovers and waste. Seagulls are frequently spotted flying over freshly ploughed fields where they’re likely watching for invertebrates, carrion, insects and small rodents.
Baby gulls are fed soft, palatable foods that are regurgitated into their mouths by either parent. Seagull chicks grow quickly and may leave the nest after just mere days, heading to nearby vegetation until they’re ready to fledge. They probably fledge after around 6 weeks, though some species of gulls stay with their parents until they’re around 6 months old.
Seagull feeding its young by regurgitating food
Absolutely. All species of gulls will happily tuck into insects and invertebrates ranging from flies, beetles and grubs of various kinds to earthworms, arthropods and molluscs. Gulls hunt insects both whilst flying, or on the wing, as well as by picking them off the ground.
Seagulls will certainly consume any and all bread offered to them! Bread is nutritionally incomplete and doesn’t offer gulls (or other birds or animals) what they need to grow and thrive. Whilst gulls frequent seaside benches where bread is thrown to them by passers-by in abundance, it’s not an ideal staple food.
Seagulls will eat bread, but it's not very nutritious for them and should be avoided
Seagulls certainly eat worms. They’re often observed flying after combine harvesters or other farming machinery in the hope of scavenging any disturbed worms and other disturbed insects or animals.
Seagulls searching for worms by following a tractor plowing a field
Of all the foods seagulls can eat, fish are probably at the top of their priority list. Seagulls eat any and all fish that they can fit their mouths around, most commonly including anchovies, candlefish, herring, smelt, sardines, mackerel, blennies and sculpin. They also have a particular fondness for shellfish including both molluscs and crustaceans.
Seagulls eat around 20% of their body weight daily and need a high-fat and high-protein diet to maintain their dense muscles. Most gulls probably get weak without food in around just 24 hours or so. Seagulls are flexible eaters and will likely not struggle to find food whilst they are physically able to do so, however.
A gull searching for food from the sky
Like any other animals including humans, seagulls will not thrive on a non-diverse diet. Whilst seagulls seemingly love bread and chips, these types of foods cannot sustain a healthy bird. Seagulls need a diverse and nutrient-rich diet of both meat and plant food to stay healthy.
Gulls are adaptable hunters as well as scavengers. They can catch prey on the wing whilst flying as well as from the ground and have excellent vision with eyes that can move in their eye sockets, unlike most birds. Young gulls flock together in small groups so they can watch and learn hunting and feeding behaviours from adult birds.
Seagulls have large, unhinged jaws which allow them to swallow food whole. They’re capable of consuming vast quantities of food in one fell gulp.
A flock of gulls fighting for food
Gulls have been observed to prefer food that has been handled by humans. In fact, one study found that 79% of tested gulls opted for food that had been handled by humans. Gulls are very observant birds that even watch their predators in order to learn from their movements and behaviour - they are applying similar observances here.
Gulls can affirm the quality and safety of human food, hence why they prefer it. They come to associate human food with the opportunity for an easy meal, which is certainly reflected in their scavenging abilities in the wild.
Seagull scavenging for human food from a bin
Seagulls have a burgeoning reputation of being aggressive and bloodthirsty birds, especially following recent reports of seagulls attacking dogs, other pets and even humans.
Seagulls are an impressively adaptive species, hence why urban populations have increased dramatically over recent years and whilst they aren’t strictly carnivorous, their skill for opportunistic hunting means that few feeding opportunities pass them by. Seagulls are also large and strong birds that can easily carry prey of around 2kg, which makes small mammals including small dogs a valid target. Their large jaws and flexible throat enable them to swallow prey whole, including fish, crustaceans, rabbits, rats, mice and other birds.
Gull attacks on pets and humans are still very rare indeed, but caution should be exercised when exposing small dogs or other small pets around large overhead gulls. In the wild, gulls are no more aggressive and territorial than most other birds.
A hungry seagull with a freshly caught crab for lunch
Seagulls regularly hunt for both live and dead crabs. Hunting live crabs takes extraordinary skills that seagulls possess, and they have been known to eat and swallow crabs up to the size of five inches in one go!
However, seagulls generally can't break the crab's hard shell, so to get inside, they will fly the captured crab up high in the sky before dropping it enough times for it to crack open for the fleshy meat inside.
As well as crabs, seagulls will also consume starfish when they can and they will swallow the starfish whole, in one go.
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