By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
If you’re swimming in the ocean and suddenly the lifeguard yells “Shark!” what would you do?
You’d get the heck out of the water – fast.
That’s pretty much how a seagull reacts when a falcon flies overhead, Joe Kosakowski explained.
“Falcons are like the great white shark of the sky. When you put them in the air, all of the other birds leave.”
Kosakowski and his son, Matt, are the owners of Wildlife Control Specialists, LLC, a Lebanon, N.J., company that has an assortment of trained raptors and specializes in keeping pesky birds like seagulls away from people.
The company has been awarded a $193,600 contract by City Council to prevent the gulls from bothering Ocean City’s tourists and residents on the beaches and Boardwalk this summer.
Last summer, Mayor Jay Gillian and City Council grew tired of hyper-aggressive gulls swooping down on unsuspecting tourists and snatching pizza, French fries and other food right out of their hands.
The breaking point came when Gillian witnessed one gull dive-bomb a young boy and “smack” the child in the face.
The city responded by bringing in a company that uses trained falcons, hawks and even an owl to patrol the skies. Harassed by the birds of prey, the gulls scrambled back to their natural habitat – the ocean – instead of hanging around the Boardwalk looking to steal a quick meal of pizza and French fries.
Hailing it as a great success, the city decided to continue the seagull abatement program for this summer, although the coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about the timing of the tourism season.
Kosakowski said he hopes to begin flying his raptors in Ocean City on weekends starting May 15. He would gear up to seven days a week beginning June 15 and continuing through mid-August. At that point, his company would cut back to a weekend schedule through mid-October before stopping for the year, according to plans.
“I’m hoping it starts (full time) by June 15. It’s for the mayor and city officials to decide,” Kosakowski said.
In total, Kosakowski’s birds would fly over the beaches and Boardwalk for 116 days under the proposed schedule. The cost would work out to $1,600 per day.
East Coast Falcons, of Lodi, N.J., the contractor that was in charge of shooing away the gulls last summer, was paid $2,100 per day in 2019.
Kosakowski’s Wildlife Control Specialists LLC won the contract this year by submitting a lower bid than East Coast Falcons and another company, Foster Falconry of Cossayuna, N.Y. East Coast Falcons and Foster Falconry both had bids higher than $200,000.
Ocean City was believed to be the only beach community on the East Coast last year to have a gull-abatement program that used raptors.
In an interview, Kosakowski said he is well aware of the widespread publicity and rave reviews the program generated last year.
Doug Bergen, the city’s public information officer, told City Council last year that he received media inquiries from “Dublin, Ireland, to Auckland, New Zealand” wanting to know about the seagull-chasing raptors.
At times, large sections of the beach and Boardwalk were virtually devoid of gulls. Tourists and residents alike repeatedly expressed their astonishment that the gulls had all but disappeared.
“I think we’ve made a lot of people feel safer,” Gillian said at that time.
From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on summer days, Kosakowski’s company will deploy a variety of falcons, hawks and a barn owl named Barney to drive away Ocean City’s gulls. The gulls will be harassed, not killed.
“We’re not looking to kill anything,” Kosakowski stressed. “We want to put our birds up and put the fear of God in every seagull in Ocean City.”
East Coast Falcons generated a lot of public support last summer by allowing people and the news media to get close to its raptors, even letting everyone know the birds’ names.
Kosakowski indicated that he would like his team of raptors to become celebrities in their own right by introducing them to the public.
In addition to Barney the owl, he has hawks named Seven, Clark, Nola, Lily and Big Girl and falcons named Betty and Susan. Overall, he has 10 birds of prey.
P.J. Simonis, who worked for East Coast Falcons last year, is joining with Kosakowski for the Ocean City contract this summer, giving Wildlife Control Specialists LLC an experienced hand in the beach resort.
Kosakowski is a master falconer who has a federal permit for bird-abatement programs using falcons. He is on the board of directors of the North American Falconers Association and formerly served as president of the New Jersey Falconry Club.
Touting his previous experience in controlling nuisance birds as a contractor for equestrian centers, a condominium association and a facility owned by Exxon Mobil, Kosakowski said is anxious to do battle with Ocean City’s brazen gulls.
“We win. We win, hands down,” he confidently predicted.