• August 17, 2019

Gulls, beware! - Ocean City Sentinel: News

Gulls, beware!

Ocean City spending $65,000 using birds of prey to drive away seagulls stealing food on Boardwalk

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Posted: Wednesday, August 7, 2019 10:39 am

OCEAN CITY – Seagulls have snagged the errant French fry or scarfed the odd pizza slice from unsuspecting visitors for years. 

Several observers have claimed the gulls have become more brazen and dangerous recently. 

Mayor Jay Gillian said he noticed the aggressive seagulls snatch food from people on the Boardwalk and beach in frantic swarms.

“A few weeks back I actually watched a bunch of seagulls dive bomb a child that was in a baby carriage and cut his face up,” Gillian said. “That was really the final straw for me.”

The city is frightening these ravenous gulls by hiring East Coast Falcons, a company that uses trained falcons, hawks and owls for bird abatement. 

Gillian said the trained birds scare seagulls away from the Boardwalk.

“Seagulls stealing food is nothing new but over time they’ve been getting more aggressive. It’s reached the point where we can’t eat on the Boardwalk or beach without birds flying at your hands or face. It truly has become a safety hazard. We’re also not doing the gulls any favors by feeding them pizza and French fries. None of us should be eating that, I guess,” Gillian joked.

East Coast Falcons offer a solution that is both “humane and effective,” Gillian said. 

“We wouldn’t do anything that would hurt anybody or the animals,” Gillian said. “The newest members of the city team includes falcons, hawks and an owl.”

Gillian said the council and city administration will “do whatever it takes to make sure the Boardwalk and beach experience in Ocean City is safe, family-friendly and enjoyable.” 

Erik Swanson, owner of East Coast Flacons, which operates in Lodi, N.J. and Rocky Point, N.Y., addressed onlookers at an Aug. 5 press conference in front of the Music Pier with Ozzie, a Eurasian eagle owl, perched on his arm. 

Onlookers took photos of the steely-eyed raptors and asked questions about the program. 

“Birds of prey scare every other bird and there’s a simple reason for that. The birds of prey eat other birds. The falcon is a bird specialist, the hawk usually stays towards birds and ground animals and the owl eats everything,” Swanson said.

Falcons are used during the day, hawks in the afternoon, and owls reserved for night work, however in Ocean City, the owl will also be used during daylight hours.

Swanson said the birds will be flown along the Boardwalk from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. He said the idea would be to reduce the seagulls without hurting them. 

Swanson noted when the raptors fly high, their presence will scare the gulls off the Boardwalk.

Ozzie, a Eurasian eagle owl, the largest owl species in the world, hunts during the day and night, Swanson said.

“Being that the owls here are completely nocturnal, when we put them out during the day, it really scares the gulls,” Swanson said. “Sometimes the falcons could catch something and if they do, it’s not unusual. It’s the way things work.” 

The falcon can fly anywhere to a few hundred feet to a record flight of 2,700 feet, Swanson said, adding GPS technology can track the birds. 

Swanson said the hawks would be used in “hot spots” where food vendors are and the seagulls have learned to steal. 

Ocean City would be the first beach town the East Coast to use raptors to abate seagulls, Swanson said.

“I know that they’ve done it on a couple of other beaches on the West Coast where seagulls have become aggressive like this, but on the East Coast this is the first one I’ve heard of,” Swanson said. 

East Coast Falcons will use seven birds over Ocean City this summer, including Tilda, a hybrid between a gyrfalcon and a prairie falcon.

“We breed falcons in captivity now. Falconers do this. The gyrfalcon, which is the largest falcon, when you cross her with the prairie falcon which is a desert species, we get a large falcon that’s not affected too badly by the heat,” Swanson said. 

Swanson noted that at the day’s end, the birds are called back on the ground through be a whistle and receive a piece of meat on a lure.

“It’s a simple way to get a meal,” Swanson said. “Every predator knows that if I grab something and fight with it and I could get hurt and if I get hurt that’s the end of me. When you swing that it’s an easy meal, they know there’s no fight and they’ll come from miles.”

Swanson said the seagulls could be scared from the Boardwalk after a chase with a hawk. He noted the seagulls aren’t out in force when the raptors were present.  

 “When we’re on the Boardwalk, you can see the results,” Swanson said. “We try to stay in areas where the gulls are looking for their food.”

Gillian said the program costs the city $2,100 per day or $65,000 until Labor Day, to deploy the birds.

“We’re not just worried about the Boardwalk,” Gillian said. “What I’ve seen so far and the seagulls disappear (it) just makes me feel better. It’ll be on the beach, too. When they say they go up 2,000 feet and they come down a couple hundred of miles an hour it scares everybody.” 

According to Gillian, the program would condition the seagulls off the Boardwalk and from an unnatural food supply.

“It’s to really get them (gulls) back to the wild and get them back to feeding the way they’re supposed to be feeding and not on our food,” Gillian said. 

Gillian said the public should direct their questions to Ocean City Public Information Officer Doug Bergen at (609) 525-9286 or dbergen@ocnj.us. 

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