OCEAN CITY – Ocean City Council approved spending more than $60,000 to use birds of prey to combat aggressive seagulls on the beach and boardwalk for the rest of summer 2019.
Mayor Jay Gillian and city Administrator George Savastano said the problem had reached the point where something had to be done. Almost everyone who regularly visits Ocean City’s Boardwalk has stories of gulls diving in to knock pizzas, french fries, popcorn, ice cream and other treats from people’s hands.
It’s happened for years, if not decades, but according to city officials, the problem has gotten much worse. Savastano said the city received an unprecedented number of complaints about aggressive gulls in July.
“Given the apparent severity and magnitude of the problem, which is island-wide, and given the failure of past efforts of education and enforcement to prevent feeding the gulls, it was clear something different was needed if we were to truly reduce or eliminate this public health and safety issue,” Savastano said.
Council unanimously approved the $65,100 contract with East Coast Falcons of Lodi, which will use trained falcons, hawks and owls to drive the gulls away, with the aim of returning them to their natural, presumable pizza-free diet.
The city consulted with the Ocean City Humane Society and the city purchasing agent about the plan, Savastano said. He added that because it was an emergency, the city did not need to go out to bid for the contract. The birds were already at work when the contract vote was held Aug. 8.
The city is willing to look at other funding options, but for now, its tax money is covering the cost.
“For this contract, it’s on the city’s dime,” Savastano said.
The falconers are set to be out rain or shine every day until Labor Day, from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Residents who spoke at the meeting on the issue each raised concerns. Donna Moore said the songbirds she feeds in her yard seem to be keeping closer undercover, and she is concerned one of the hawks may grab a smaller bird.
Ric Bertsch said the contract primarily benefits boardwalk merchants, and so the city should look to them to cover the cost.
According to Savastano, the handlers are trained and licensed at the federal and state level. He said the birds are well fed and will not attack other birds. The federal permit is for abatement, Savastano said.
“They do not have a depredation permit, which would allow the intentional killing of gulls,” he said. “The idea is just to scare them.”
He added that the contract covers the entire island and will have an impact on beaches from the north end to the south.
The city passed an ordinance against feeding gulls about a decade ago. It did not seem to make much difference, officials said. The gulls do not need to be fed, they just take what they want.
Some gulls seem to work in teams, with one swooping in from behind to knock the snack to the ground, while others rush in to retrieve it and fly away. Mayor Jay Gillian presented the issue as a matter of public safety.
“When you talk about taxpayers’ money, think of the lawsuits that we’ll have when all of a sudden a little baby loses their eyeball or somebody gets hurt. You start talking about how much money we’re going to spend,” he said.
He also took umbrage at characterizations of the move as an attempt to protect french fries, as the program was described in one headline.
“It’s just frustrating sometimes when we’re doing good things trying to help the quality of life and everybody’s got to get their little jab,” Gillian said.
Since its announcement before the council vote, the unusual step has garnered extensive media attention, from around the state and beyond. The New York Times and the Washington Post have covered the story, as have national television news outlets.
The hawks and owls have gotten a lot of attention from visitors as well, with many posting images and messages to social media about the birds. Most indicate they are successful, describing gulls scattering from the boardwalk if one of the hawks as much as stretches its wings.
Savastano said it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, but anecdotal evidence seems in its favor, and he indicated the results so far seem promising. Speakers at the meeting said they were able to eat a sandwich on the beach in peace.
On a visit to the packed boardwalk after the meeting, the sunset sky did seem unusually empty. Gulls often gather in large numbers over the boardwalk at night, visible in the lights shining up from the amusement parks.
On this evening, a few gulls crossed the sky and one landed nearby on a light post, but there did not seem to be any visible congregation of gulls for blocks.
Numerous species of seagulls can be found along the New Jersey shore. In summer, the most common on the boardwalk by far are the laughing gulls, with gray wings, a white neck, black head and a cawing cry that can sound downright mocking to someone whose lunch was stolen.
Also common are the herring gulls, a larger bird often seen on the beach. These, too, can exhibit aggressive behavior.
Wild hawks are also common along the shoreline. Osprey, which are far more interested in fish than in other birds, have seen a big comeback in recent years.
Red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, marsh hawks, peregrine falcon and the occasional bald eagle can be seen flying over the houses and trees of the city.
To contact Bill Barlow, email email@example.com.