OCEAN CITY – Members of the public from multiple perspectives bring their concerns and comments to Ocean City Council meetings, addressing issues of national, citywide or neighborhood importance, using the open forum to get their voices heard.
A recent meeting may have been the first time a great horned owl approached the podium.
The owl, named Ozzie, was perched on Erik Swanson’s gloved left hand while Swanson spoke to council members. Swanson is the owner of East Coast Falcons.
The Lodi-based company received a $65,100 contract to drive seagulls away from the beach and boardwalk, using trained hawks, a falcon and Ozzie, who Swanson described as “like Dracula” to other birds, who can’t see or hear him coming.
The contract was set to end Sept. 2, but officials announced that it will be extended for weekends through Columbus Day Weekend at the same rate, $2,100 per day. Like many shore towns, Ocean City has numerous events after Labor Day, including its popular fall Block Party along Asbury Avenue Oct. 12, which is held the Saturday before Columbus Day, Oct. 14.
At the Aug. 22 meeting, Swanson told council that the program has been a huge success.
Bird abatement projects are often extremely difficult, he said, especially when there is food involved. This time, however, it’s been going great, he said.
“This one is working out fantastic,” he said. “When we hear of complaints… we just go over and solve them.”
Comments from people on the boardwalk and social media pages seem to agree with his assertion, with many people saying they’ve been able to eat on the beach and boardwalk in peace for the first time in years.
According to city Administrator George Savastano, the gulls had become aggressive on the boardwalk, as to constitute a crisis. As almost any visitor can attest, they would knock fries, ice cream, and pizza from the hands of children and adults. They often seemed to work in teams, with one barreling in from above or behind while others nab the food.
Swanson said he was approached by one 20-year resident, who said this summer is the first time he saw gulls fishing out in the water.
“Which is exactly what we wanted them to do. We wanted to stop them from harassing people on the boardwalk and get them out where they’re supposed to be,” Swanson said.
While there seems little question that the efforts worked, that does not mean there were no complaints, Swanson said.
“Most of the people that we talked to are worried that we’re killing the gulls, that we’re chasing the gulls away, that we’re chasing them to another town. With a little bit of education, those people turn around,” he said. “The gulls are still here. They’re just where they should be; they’re out in the ocean.”
The license for abatement does not allow for gulls to be killed. Swanson said the birds of prey are kept well fed enough that they do not try for the gulls or other birds along the shore. So far, he said, there has not been a gull injured or killed as part of the program, although he said he could not guarantee that would never happen.
The contract covers the entire island, he said. The hawks are used on the beach and boardwalk, while a falcon flies the length and breadth of the city, outfitted with a GPS tracker to mark its route.
That bird, too, is fed enough that it will not attack the gulls, but does pursue them, “Which I think scares the gulls even more,” Swanson said. “It’s like, oh, God, she’s coming back. I really don’t like it here.”
Some residents have raised concern about the cost of the program, which is funded entirely by the city for 2019. Swanson did not address that, although city Public Information Officer Doug Bergen mentioned the value of the extraordinary amount of interest from media outlets around the world. The value of that publicity is worth exponentially more than what the city spent, he said.
Stories have appeared in local media, including television, print, and websites, with stories appearing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and beyond. He said he began to compile a list of stories but gave up after about 80.
“I can tell you from Dublin, Ireland to Auckland, New Zealand; Ocean City and the success of this program has been front and center,” Bergen said.
Residents and visitors have described the program as a success, he said.
“I answer a lot of emails and a lot of phone calls, and as you can imagine they’re not always happy ones and positive ones, but with this program, I can tell you that people are very, very excited about the success of this program,” Bergen said.
To contact Bill Barlow, email email@example.com.