Fed up with aggressive seagulls that have snatched junk food right out of the hands of beachgoers and attacked toddlers on the boardwalk, Ocean City, N.J., is now targeting the gulls with birds of prey.
Falcons, hawks, and owls will fly over the Shore town from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. each day to scare the gulls and move them away from the boardwalk.
The program, part of a seagull-abatement effort believed to be the first of its kind in any East Coast Shore town, was launched Aug. 3.
“They’d fly right at your face,” Denise Jackson of Millville, who was on the boardwalk Monday, said of the seagulls. “They would attack you. They’d attack the kids. I might be able to eat a whole funnel cake today.”
Jackson said the new plan, although only in its third day, appeared to be working.
“It’s mind-boggling" to not see the birds out in full force, Jackson said, looking up at the sky.
The city is paying East Coast Falcons $2,100 per day, about $65,000 through Labor Day, for their work on the pilot program, said owner Erik Swanson. If the program succeeds, the birds will return next summer.
The plan is humane and is not intended to kill the seagulls, Swanson said. As birds of prey, the raptors naturally scare them off. The professional falconers will release seven birds over the course of the raptors’ 12 hours on duty — hawks and falcons during the day, and 8-year-old Ozzy, a Eurasian eagle owl, at night.
Instead of plucking funnel cakes, pizza, and fries straight from people’s hands, Swanson said the seagulls should return to eating crabs and fish in the ocean.
“It’s simply a program to push the seagulls off, try to get them back into feeding the way they should, getting them off the junk food,” he said.
Mayor Jay Gillian, in a letter to residents, agreed with Swanson.
“The gulls in Ocean City have become increasingly aggressive in their quest for boardwalk food and beach picnics,” Gillian wrote. “For the health and safety of both these birds and humans, the city must take action to return them to their natural diet and habitat.”
Over the years, the city has tried to fight the unruly creatures by threatening fines of up to $500 and jail times for people who try to feed the gulls.
Some boardwalk vendors have installed spikes on their roofs and used machines that replicate sounds of birds in distress. Other merchants got creative, offering napkins, boxes, and bags to shield their food.
Ausra Katkauskaite, a cashier with Tater’s Famous Fries, said that at least every two or three days, she sees seagulls snatch food from people who don’t secure their meals.
The customers who shield food from the seagulls’ sight “are really taking care of it like a child,” she said, but even then the seagulls may strike.
Brad Diamond, who owns Roma Pizza, said he sees the gulls steal food from people freely carrying their meals around the boardwalk — many of them unsuspecting children. He said he sees the birds swarm several times a day.
He hopes the new program will succeed, but noted several flocks of seagulls were hanging around.
“Definitely something needed to be done,” he said. “They’re like vultures.”
If the birds of prey program keeps the gulls away, Doug Bergen, the city’s public information officer, said there would be a discussion in the spring on whether to continue the plan and how to fund it. He said the city could seek bids from other similar companies.
"It’s an increasing problem and we’re looking to try different solutions,” he said of the seagulls.
Initially, the falcon group wasn’t planning to start until the summer of 2020, but after hearing accounts of the birds’ aggressive behavior, Swanson said his team thought, “Maybe we should get down there.”
Ocean City resident Angela Smedile was at the Ocean City Music Pier, where Swanson and his team introduced the raptors to the curious children, families, and tourists. She noted the small number of seagulls flapping their wings above the boardwalk.
But this program, Smedile said, is the best solution.
“They know that they’re here,” she said, explaining the seagulls’ awareness of the falcons and hawks.
Others, such as Kris Fisher, whose summer home is at the Shore, said she advocates for “freeing the gulls.”
“It’s their natural habitat,” she said, condemning efforts to chase the birds away. “The beach is the seagulls’ home.”
Falconer PJ Simones, toting 17-week-old Harris’s hawk “O.C.” on his arm, said that’s what should have happened to begin with, but humans created the problem by feeding seagulls.