By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
A movie star will be taking up residence in Ocean City this summer.
But with piercing orange eyes, a sharp, curved beak and fierce talons, Eli is not your typical celebrity.
The intimidating female Eurasian eagle-owl is part of a group of raptors that will patrol the skies over Ocean City to prevent the pesky, squawking seagulls from harassing humans for their food.
Eli, pronounced “ELL-ee,” started working in Ocean City after being filmed in a dream sequence in director Martin Scorsese’s new movie “Killers of the Flower Moon” starring Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Based on the book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,” the film depicts a series of murders that occurred in Oklahoma in the 1920s. Eli’s scene was filmed in Oklahoma.
Now that her film career is on hiatus, Eli and her fellow raptors are attracting plenty of attention from Boardwalk strollers in Ocean City. This is the third summer that their owner, East Coast Falcons, will use falcons, hawks and owls to chase the gulls off Ocean City’s beaches, Boardwalk and other areas of town popular with summer tourists.
Ocean City is believed to be the only resort community on the East Coast that handles gulls in this way.
“I’ve gotten a ton of calls from other resorts in New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island. It may catch on. Who knows? But as far as I know, Ocean City is the only one,” said Erik Swanson, the owner of East Coast Falcons, based in Lodi, N.J.
The raptors have become celebrities in the process, attracting loads of national and international publicity for Ocean City. Swanson and his employees can barely take a few steps on the Boardwalk before they are surrounded by people wanting to take photos and video of the birds.
More important, the raptors have been overwhelmingly successful in chasing the gulls back into their natural habitat, the bays, marshlands and ocean, according to city officials.
That has allowed Ocean City tourists and residents to eat their pizza, French fries and other food without fear of the annoying gulls swooping down to steal a meal.
“These birds have done a great job of making the Boardwalk and beach experience safer and much more pleasant without harming the local gull population,” Mayor Jay Gillian said in a statement.
Five falcons, three Harris’s hawks and two Eurasian eagle-owls will patrol on weekends through the remainder of the month and begin seven days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day. After Labor Day, East Coast Falcons will revert to a weekend schedule before ending its work for the season in mid-October, Swanson said.
East Coast Falcons will be paid $1,935 per day, with the annual amount of its contract estimated at $250,000, according to a City Council resolution that authorized the company’s hiring for 2021.
In its first two summers, East Coast Falcons mainly concentrated on keeping the Boardwalk and parts of Ocean City’s beachfront relatively free of seagulls. But this summer, the company will look to expand the areas it patrols to include the Asbury Avenue corridor in the downtown business district and outdoor dining areas.
“We’re going to push the seagulls off the whole island,” Swanson vowed in an interview Sunday. “Not that it’s going to be easy, by any means. But we’ll get it done.”
Outdoor dining areas will be a key area protected by the raptors. Swanson noted that outdoor dining has become far more popular during the pandemic, which means East Coast Falcons will concentrate on the restaurants.
Swanson said he has more raptors than last year to take on the bigger task. He will also have two falconers, the employees who handle the birds, instead of just one like last year.
“We’re really ramping up the program quite a bit,” he said.
As a cautionary note, he added that people should not expect that every seagull in Ocean City will disappear.
“We’re not going to say we’ll get rid of every seagull,” Swanson said. “Obviously, there are some places where they’re not a problem. If they’re sitting in the middle of a ballfield and not doing any damage, we don’t care.”
The raptors don’t kill the gulls. They simply scare them away, Swanson stressed.
Instead of munching human food, the gulls should be eating fish and crabs from the ocean and bays. Using the raptors as “watch birds,” the idea is to drive the gulls back into their natural habitat.
The mayor and other Ocean City officials have also appealed to members of the public to do their part. Gillian has urged people 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.
Gillian decided to hire East Coast Falcons in 2019 after the city heard numerous complaints from tourists and residents about the aggressive gulls menacing people for their food. The final straw for Gillian was when he saw a dive-bombing gull “smack” a small child in the face. He has repeatedly characterized it as a public safety issue.
Now, Gillian is referring to the raptors as “friends.”
“Some of you may have noticed this week that we have a few friends back in town for the season. I’m happy to report that East Coast Falcons started work today in the third season of our gull-abatement program,” he said in a public statement Friday.