Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

a pooping seagull
This bird may look like it’s innocently minding—and doing—its business, but new research shows that gulls have nefarious intentions when relieving themselves over land. Photo by Pavel1964/iStock

Gulls Aim for Humans When They Poop

New study finds that people with brown hair are particularly at risk of being targeted.

Authored by

by Raina Delisle

Article body copy

For Brodie Brown, getting pooped on is as much a part of his work week as going for beers on Friday. Brown is a cook at One Fish, Two Fish, an oceanfront eatery in Victoria, British Columbia. At least twice a week, a gull drops a white, sticky bomb on his shaggy brown hair as he walks on the dock where the restaurant is located.

“It’s shitty,” Brown says, as he cowers under the restaurant’s awning after making it to work without getting bombed. “I swear they’re aiming for me.”

A new study published this week in the journal Fecal News suggests Brown is right. The researchers found that eight times out of 10, glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens) specifically aim for human heads when they defecate above land. The other 20 percent of the time, they simply can’t hold it long enough to find an unsuspecting human, possibly because they’ve indulged in too many French fries, the authors posit in the paper.

When the birds do aim for humans, they are successful more than 90 percent of the time. For the purpose of the study, success entailed shitting directly on an individual’s head; gull guano that hit the shoulders or splattered the shoes, for example, did not count.

“This confirms what coastal residents have long suspected—gulls enjoy crapping on us,” says lead author Bethany Gervais, a scatologist at Knight’s University in Vancouver, British Columbia. “They also have excellent aim.”

Gervais and her colleagues set up an observation center on the top deck of a float home at Victoria’s Mariners’ Harbour, a popular destination for tourists and a known gull gathering place. Using drones and visual observations, they studied the habits of the gulls that entered their research area from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Friday during the month of August 2017. In total, they tallied 896,765 instances of defecation.

“The strength of this study is in its large sample size,” says Albert McMillian, a behavioral ornithologist at Best Western University in Brandon, Ontario, who was not involved in the study. “However, it’s hard to know the intentions of gulls. Could it just be a coincidence? More research is needed.”

Gervais conceded that there are other possible explanations for the seemingly strategic shitstorm. “Overpopulation in cities is certainly creating more opportunities for these birds to hit humans, but all signs point to a purposeful interspecies interaction,” she says, adding that preliminary analysis of the gulls’ calls suggests they often “cackle” after hitting a target.

The research team made another interesting discovery: the birds are three times as likely to aim for people with brown hair. It’s possible that those with chocolate locks are simply easier to see, Gervais explains, or the birds may prefer how their white poo stands out on a dark canvas.

That’s little comfort to Brown, who regularly has to dunk his head in the chilly Pacific and use hand sanitizer from the restaurant to wash his hair before starting his shift. (Using the sink at One Fish, Two Fish is strictly prohibited due to food safe protocols.) Recently, Brown has taken to wearing a hat fashioned from a plastic bag, but with the city set to ban the single-use bags, he’s evaluating his other options.

As for the belief that it’s good luck to get pooped on by a bird? Brown bumped into his future girlfriend when his bag-hat slipped over his eyes. When he removed the bag to apologize, he was promptly pooped on, but the woman, a hairstylist, helped him clean up in the ocean using a sample-sized shampoo from her purse. Now that Brown knows his hair color is a risk factor, he’s considering asking his girlfriend to dye it platinum. “I’m grateful for people who are spending time studying these important issues,” he says. “Not only did I find love, I may have also found a hip new hairstyle.”