Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2019 11:20 am | Updated: 12:35 pm, Wed Aug 28, 2019.
OCEAN CITY – Erik Swanson of East Coast Falcons of Lodi brought Ozzy, a Eurasian eagle owl, to council chambers Aug. 22.
Gluttonous gulls poaching food from people prompted complaints earlier this summer. Visitors and locals, tired of dive-bombing gulls grabbing pizza and French fries, called on the city to abate the ravenous birds, whose diets normally consist of shellfish and other marine creatures.
Mayor Jay Gillian said the “final straw” for him came when he witnessed a gull attack a child on the Boardwalk this summer.
The city needed a quick solution and hired East Coast Falcons for $65,100 to abate aggressive gulls island-wide. On Aug. 3, the falconers commenced with their bird abatement operation.
The city is paying East Coast Falcons, which uses falcons, hawks and owls to frighten gulls away from the crowded beaches and Boardwalk, $2,100 per day to run the program until Labor Day, Sept. 2.
The hawks and the owl are being flown over the Boardwalk and adjacent beach, while the falcon soars up to 2,000 feet in the air and covers the entire island.
The birds operate from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
City Business Administrator George Savastano trumpeted the gull abatement program as “pretty successful.”
“We’ve gotten a fair amount of positive feedback,” Savastano said.
City Public Information Officer Doug Bergen said he usually receives contentious feedback on a number of issues, but the gull abatement program has received “100 percent positive” coverage.
“People are very excited about the success of this program,” Bergen said. “People are very excited by the effectiveness of the idea they can go to the beach and boardwalk and eat.”
He said over 80 media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Austin Globe, San Francisco Chronicle have reported on Ocean City’s bird abatement efforts.
“I can say that from Dublin, Ireland to Auckland, New Zealand, Ocean City and the success of this program has been front and center. If you try to calculate the value of that kind of exposure I would say it would amount to a hundreds of thousands of dollars easily, far exceeding the money we spent on this,” Bergen said.
Swanson, with Ozzy perched on his arm, explained those concerned that the raptors were harming the gulls have been educated as to the program’s intentions: to frighten away and not maim or kill any birds.
“The gulls are still here. They’re just where they should be. They’re out in the ocean,” Swanson said. “One of the residents that I met that claimed to be a 20 year resident on the island said that for the first time he saw the gulls fish out in the water which is exactly what we wanted them to do.”
Swanson said the raptors have stopped gulls from harassing people on the beach and Boardwalk.
“I never really realized how important it is to somebody to be able to stop and eat their food in peace,” Swanson said. “I never realized eating pizza and French fries on the Boardwalk could be so important to somebody.”
Swanson noted when Ozzy works the Boardwalk, “every seagull leaves.”
“An owl is probably – if you’re a bird – it’s Dracula,” Swanson said. “You don’t know where he’s going to come from, you’ll never hear him, you’ll never see him.”
Ozzy’s sharp talons, mesmerizing gaze and sharp beak make him a formidable sight. Perched on Swanson’s glove, Ozzy spread his wings and showed how intimidating he was to gulls. Gillian jokingly remarked how the owl’s stare “freaks me out.”
Swanson said he’s heard people have come to Ocean City to see the raptors and listens to their horror stories about being attacked by gulls. He said Ocean City is the first seashore community to use falconers for gull abatement.
“I have a feeling you may have opened a door for other falconers in other shore communities which would be good,” Swanson told council.
Gillian said keeping grabby gulls off the Boardwalk was a quality of life and public safety issue.
“I’m getting phone calls from the grandparents saying I can bring my kids up and I’m not scared to come up on the boardwalk,” Gillian said. “It has to be a horrible feeling to be in your home now and know that on beautiful nights you’re afraid to go up on the boardwalk.”
Gillian called hiring the falconers “a beginning” to addressing complaints on the boardwalk. He is in talks with the Boardwalk Merchants Association on possibly enclosing boardwalk trash containers.
“We have to cover our containers. We have to stop feeding wildlife because we think it’s cute,” Gillian said.
He noted that he’s glad people aren’t afraid to walk on the boardwalk.
“I think we’ve made a lot of people feel a lot safer,” Gillian said. “These birds seem very good.”
Gillian said the publicity has been positive over the program.
“We spend so much money to try to promote Ocean City, but here’s something that’s a good thing. The money that were spending on this we’ve gotten it back tenfold,” Gillian said.
Council peppered Swanson with questions about the program’s details and effectiveness.
Councilwoman Karen Bergman said she’s heard from others what a difference the beach and boardwalk is today.
“I sat on the beach on Monday and saw two gulls. I just couldn’t believe it. It was such a difference,” Bergman said.
Councilman Keith Hartzell thanked Swanson for responding to Ocean City’s need.
“I knew it was working, we just didn’t see you and see you handle the birds and the level of professionalism and the knowledge you have makes me feel better and confident,” Hartzell said.
Swanson said the falcons are flown in the mornings and cover the island, followed by the hawks that work the boardwalk or individual areas, while the owl works “night patrol.”
Councilman Bob Barr asked if the gulls learn not to get too close to the boardwalk after encountering the raptors. Swanson said the gulls would return to the boardwalk if the raptors aren’t there.