Rob Guadagna admits it can be a tough sell, explaining to people that the real key to solving their problem with gulls or geese or almost any birds that bug them is a simple kite - or, OK, a not-so-simple kite.
"I get laughed at a lot," Guadagna said, standing on an Atlantic City beach that's suddenly, strangely empty of gulls. "People come up to me and say, 'I thought you were a B.S. artist.'"
Tom Burns, manager of the Boardwalk Ambassadors program in Atlantic City, confirmed that he and his bosses were among the skeptics when Guadagna approached them with his patented Geesebusters Bird Control Service plan to make birds behave better on the city's beaches and boards. Guadagna offered a scared-straight scheme for gulls - perhaps the most hated beach creatures in our local world - just by flying his kite.
"Nobody believed it," Burns said - until they saw the kite fly, and lots of gulls and pigeons fly away.
The kite works because it's a model of a giant, almost-real-looking eagle, with wings 6 feet from tip to tip. It can go up in the air and hover, or, Guadagna said, with the proper handling, the big bird can turn in slow, ominous loops to look like a predator on the prowl.
He returned to Atlantic City one day last week from his Long Island, N.Y., base to tweak one of his kites. Guadagna and two neon-green-shirted Boardwalk Ambassadors, Frank Burbridge, of Brigantine, and Noel Malava, of Atlantic City, took turns putting a Geesebusters' eagle on its reel - which comes loaded with 2,000 feet of 15-pound test fishing line, enough to send it almost a half-mile high - and sending the fake bird up to the sky.
Almost immediately, every real bird that had been on the beach was up in the air, too, many of them squawking in a chorus of protest. As the handlers worked on their fly-like-an-eagle exercises, there wasn't a single gull on the ground for a few blocks around.
The nuisance birds didn't clear out of town - lots of gulls and pigeons were still in plain sight, flying hundreds of feet over the Boardwalk. But that's fine with people who care about the city's human residents and visitors being able to eat their pizza and cheesesteaks and french fries without competition swooping in from the sky.
"They're up high," Burns pointed out with a wave toward the circling birds, some of which appeared to soar at least halfway up the nearly 500-foot hotel tower at nearby Bally's Atlantic City. "They're definitely not going to be bothering anybody up there."
Still, a few birds were brave enough to harass the eagle, buzzing it from above - which is something birdwatchers know also happens to actual hawks, ospreys and other birds of prey. But even these bold gulls were careful not to go below the eagle kite, where instinct told them they could be attacked.
The Boardwalk Ambassadors - a security squad created by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and the Atlantic City Special Improvement Division - bought one of the Geesebusters packages as a trial earlier this year. It includes two different eagles, one for use in light winds and low humidity, and a heavier-duty model for winds of 10 to 20 mph or higher humidity. Guadagna includes an initial bird "cleanout," plus training for fake-eagle handlers and repairs to his equipment in his basic service price of $4,250, he said.
Still, Atlantic City needs more than one pretend predator to control its Boardwalk birds, Guadagna said. One eagle can clear gulls from an area an eighth- to a quarter-mile around - the higher the bird goes, the more gulls it chases. But just the commercial, restaurant-rich area of the Boardwalk is more than two miles long, although people obviously eat on the beach way beyond those boundaries.
So Burns, who works for ABM, a security contractor for the CRDA and SID, said his ambassadors often hitch the eagle to a golf-cartlike vehicle and keep it moving up and down the beach. They usually stop in one spot for 30 minutes or so, then move on again.
Many other local beach towns have outdoor restaurants - plus swarms of hungry creatures, human and avian, that count on them for food.
Mark Soifer, who has 40 years of experience as Ocean City's spokesman, said that Boardwalk-bordered city put up warning signs forbidding feeding gulls a few years ago. But since then, he couldn't remember the town trying any serious bird-control tactics or tricks.
"Around here, they're treated as a slight annoyance," said Soifer, who admits to having "a soft spot in my heart for gulls. ... Maybe we could just scare the more aggressive ones away - the ones that soar down and grab french fries out of your hand."
When he heard about the kite-control experiment a few miles north in Atlantic City, the PR man suggested that Ocean City could run the idea up the flagpole with a veteran local merchant - Doug Jewell, whose Air Circus has sold all kinds of kites on the Boardwalk for more than three decades.
Regulars on beaches and boardwalks know that the worst thing humans can do is try to feed gulls, because the birds come to expect that food source, if not demand it. But many rookies are slow to learn the lesson that gulls also enjoy eating people food - and they've learned to steal it even when humans don't want to share.
So back in Atlantic City, the tourist-friendly ambassadors say they make it a point to warn people that bird-feeding on the boards is breaking the law.
Guadagna also understands that many humans truly don't understand the aggressive-bird cycle. He once had his eagle up on bird patrol in a state park on Long Island, and as he was reeling it back in, he saw a woman throwing cubes of bread up toward the giant bird. Yes, she was trying to feed a kite.
But because there is no actual feeding needed, the giant eagle won't go away when many tourists do after this weekend. Burns said smaller off-season crowds should let the ambassadors put the kite up more often, which should in turn keep gulls in check more. And he hopes to get the eagle in the air regularly in the late winter and early spring, which Guadagna says could be the key to convincing many gulls to find somewhere else to nest.
Still, less than a half-hour after Guadagna and the ambassadors pulled the kite down from their demonstration last week, gulls were flying lower and lower over the beach where the eagle had landed. And some were starting to settle back down on the sand, getting ready to go back on the hunt for lunch.
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