By MADDY VITALE
Those flocks of menacing seagulls that swoop down to steal French fries, pizza and ice cream from unsuspecting tourists will be in for a surprise this summer.
Ocean City will bring back a successful program that uses raptors such as hawks, falcons and owls to scare away gulls from the beaches and Boardwalk.
City Council approved a resolution to solicit bids for the seagull abatement program at a meeting Thursday night.
When asked how it worked last year, City Business Administrator George Savastano called it “extremely successful.”
The plan is to have the raptors begin flying around Memorial Day. Initially, they will patrol Ocean City’s skies on weekends until mid-June and then after that they would be every day through Labor Day. From Labor Day until Columbus Day, they would return to a weekend schedule.
Council voted to authorize advertising for “Falconry-Based Bird Abatement (FBBA) services on the Ocean City Boardwalk and the beachfront areas.”
The bid openings are scheduled for March 10 and the contract is expected to be awarded March 26.
With the success of the program last season, city officials appear to be hoping to repeat the same strategy for the summer of 2020.
The city paid an outside company called East Coast Falcons $2,100 per day to have the raptors fly over the entire island, particularly the tourist-friendly beaches and Boardwalk beginning in late summer.
It is not yet known whether East Coast Falcons will bid on the new contract. Terms of the 2020 contract would be released after it is awarded by City Council.
Falconer PJ Simonis worked 13-hour days flying some of the eight birds of prey used by East Coast Falcons at different intervals. At night, Ozzy, an owl, patrolled the skies up and down the length of the Boardwalk to scare away the gulls.
Erik Swanson, owner of East Coast Falcons, said in an interview over Columbus Day weekend, the last weekend of the program for the 2019 season, that it was a complete success.
The birds of prey, Swanson said, did their job and there were no incidents known of seagulls being injured or killed.
“The seagulls were a big problem here,” Swanson recalled.
Environmental advocate and Ocean City resident Donna Moore suggested to Council during public comments Thursday that the city should consider using a drone instead of real raptors to scare off seagulls.
Moore called it a “cute little drone raptor.”
She said a drone could be a lot more affordable compared to having real raptors fly over the Boardwalk and beaches. She added that the city would be able to precisely control where a drone would fly.
Moore thinks a drone would not affect the existing bird population the same way live raptors have. She believes the birds at her house and Ocean City’s “resident raptors” were scared by the outside raptors.
Earlier in the summer of 2019, before the birds of prey arrived, the city and Mayor Jay Gillian heard complaints that children were being injured by gulls. The gulls were becoming increasingly more food aggressive.
Seagulls dotted the landscape over eateries and other “hot spots” along the Boardwalk and swooped down to snatch food from visitors lounging on the beaches until the falcons arrived.
Swanson said Ocean City officials had the foresight to try something different and safe to ward off pesky seagulls. He said in the October interview that his company hoped to come back to continue to make the town nearly gull-free for the enjoyment of visitors and residents.
“Now, they can brag they have a shore town that is almost gull-free,” he said.