By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
With a team of trained falcons, hawks and even an owl hot on their tail, Ocean City’s pesky seagulls appear to be fleeing town, including the popular tourist areas such as the beach and Boardwalk.
An experimental program using birds of prey to chase away the gulls has been showing promise since it began last Saturday, according to initial reports.
“As of today, reports about the effectiveness of the program are encouraging,” City Business Administrator George Savastano told members of City Council during their meeting Thursday night.
Ocean City’s highly publicized hiring of a company that flies falcons, hawks and an owl around the island to frighten the gulls is believed to be the first of its kind for a town at the Jersey Shore.
The arrival of the raptors owned by East Coast Falcons is part of Mayor Jay Gillian’s plan to rid the beaches, Boardwalk and other parts of the city of the swarms of hungry gulls that have been menacing residents and tourists alike for their food.
East Coast Falcons is being paid $2,100 per day under a contract that is expected to run through Labor Day, the traditional end of the bustling summer tourism season.
City officials made the decision to hire the company after hearing numerous complaints from tourists and local residents about hyper-aggressive gulls swooping down to snatch an easy meal right out of people’s hands.
In one disturbing incident, the mayor said he witnessed a child sitting in a baby carriage get struck in the face by a dive-bombing gull.
“After what I saw, I just had enough of it,” Gillian said during the Council meeting.
The raptors will patrol Ocean City’s skies each day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The falcons and hawks will work the day shift, while the owl takes over at night.
Savastano said he has been told by Erik Swanson, the owner of East Coast Falcons, that the raptors are doing their job. At this early stage, there has been “a noticeable, marked reduction” in the number of gulls hanging around the city based on Swanson’s observations.
“They don’t like the hawks. They don’t like the falcons,” Savastano said of the gulls.
Savastano stressed that the raptors are being used only to scare the gulls, not to kill them. East Coast Falcons does not have a permit that would allow its birds to kill seagulls.
“When East Coast Falcon’s professionals fly the raptors overhead, gulls know instinctively to leave an unsafe place,” the city said in a statement. “Professional falconry-based bird abatement is a humane, effective solution for removing nuisance birds. The contractor is licensed to conduct the work, and the effort is approved by the Humane Society of Ocean City, which oversees animal control for the town.”
The bird abatement program is expected to return next summer if it proves successful this year. East Coast Falcons will be paid a total of $65,100 for its services this summer through Labor Day.
Gillian has urged the public not to feed the gulls, emphasizing that the birds are congregating on the beaches, the Boardwalk and other areas where they can grab quick meals instead of staying in their natural habitat. In Ocean City, it is against the law to feed seagulls and other wildlife.
“Over time, the gulls in Ocean City have become increasingly aggressive in their quest for Boardwalk food and beach picnics. For the health and safety of both these birds and humans, the city must take action to return them to their natural diet and habitat,” the city’s statement said.
Despite the city’s best efforts to educate the public, people continue to feed the gulls, making the birds even more aggressive. Councilman Bob Barr said he recently saw some children dump a bucket of popcorn on the Boardwalk just to see the gulls swarm.
“It’s a real concern, and it’s gotten worse,” Barr said of the gulls harassing people this summer. “We had to do something.”
Barr noted that he once had a gull brazenly steal a piece of pizza from him and also had a hotdog snatched from him by another bird.
The mayor has working with Boardwalk merchants on other ways to deter the gulls, including having them give their customers enclosed food containers for their takeout meals.
One Ocean City resident, Ric Bertsch, suggested that the Boardwalk merchants, not local taxpayers, should pick up the cost for the bird abatement program.
“To me, it’s their responsibility,” Bertsch said of the merchants in remarks to Council.
In response, both Gillian and Savastano pointed out that the gulls have been plaguing the entire city, not just the Boardwalk.
“This isn’t a Boardwalk merchant thing,” Gillian said.
Plans call for the raptors to chase away the gulls from the entire island, not just the beaches and Boardwalk. The idea is to drive them back into their natural habitat.
Swanson said during a press conference Monday that the gulls should be eating crabs and fish from the ocean rather than snacking on pizza and French fries.
In other business Thursday, Council introduced an ordinance that authorizes the city to either buy or condemn a large tract of privately owned land that it has been trying to acquire for the past year.
The property is bordered by Simpson and Haven avenues between 16th and 17th streets and formerly served as the location of a now-defunct Chevrolet dealership.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said the new ordinance is the first step in starting negotiations with the private owner, Klause Enterprises, in hopes of reaching a deal.
The land owners, brothers Jerry and Harry Klause, were granted Ocean City planning board approval earlier in the year to develop 21 single-family homes on the site.
City officials, in their attempts to acquire the property, want to preserve the land as public space to protect it from densely packed housing construction that would add to the town’s overdevelopment.
The city tried to buy the same property last year from Klause Enterprises for $9 million, but the deal fell through when the community group Fairness In Taxes circulated a petition drive for a voter referendum to block the purchase.
FIT objected to the proposed purchase price, arguing that it was dramatically higher than what the city should pay. Dave Hayes, FIT’s president, said in public remarks to Council on Thursday that his organization supports the city’s attempt to buy or condemn the land if it can acquire the site for a lower price.
Hayes also said the city needs to specify what it plans to do with the property, including whether it would preserve it as open space or use it for another purpose.