OCEAN CITY — Ozzy the Eurasian eagle-owl is ready for his new summer job: patrolling the Boardwalk from thousands of feet in the air to scare off hungry sea gulls below.
The gulls in America’s Family Resort have grown more aggressive in their quest for French fries and pizza, the city has said, and now fed up officials are ready to ruffle some feathers.
The city has hired a team of professional bird trainers to deploy hawks, falcons and owls more than 2,000 feet above the Boardwalk (where it’s about 20 degrees cooler) to frighten the gulls and restore order to the popular vacation destination.
“It’s exactly like if a tiger ran in here. ... What would everybody do?” Erik Swanson, master falconer and owner of East Coast Falcons, told a large crowd outside the Music Pier as Ozzy, perched on his arm, began flapping his wings.
The gull abatement program costs $2,100 per day, or about $65,000 until Labor Day, said Mayor Jay Gillian. At the end of the summer, the city will decide whether to renew the contract with East Coast Falcons based on its success.
“We always try to look out of the box, and that’s what I think we’ve done here,” Gillian said before calling the gulls a “public safety hazard.”
How it works is simple, Swanson said.
Hawks and falcons will be set off into the skies every morning at 10 a.m. As predators, their mere presence will make the uneasy gulls flee. Swanson said the trainers control the raptors’ diets, so they’re not hungry and hunting while on duty. Owls take over for the night shift.
At the end of the day, the trainers blow a whistle and the birds return to land and are rewarded with a piece of quail meat. The sea gulls, he said, will go back to scavenging for fish and crab in the ocean.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” said P.J. Simonis, holding a 17-week-old Harris hawk.
Swanson said the predators could attack a gull on occasion, but “that’s nature.”
On Monday, the raptors appeared to be doing their jobs well. The normally hectic Boardwalk was largely absent ravenous sea gulls swooping and dive bombing for scraps. The usual cacophony of squawks and kids’ screams died down.
And the masses were pleased.
“Thank you, mayor,” one woman yelled after Gillian stepped off stage.
The city has long had a tumultuous relationship with the shore bird. In 2015, police said a man beat a sea gull to death with a rolled towel to protect his 2-year-old child. A year later, officials passed an ordinance to fine people who feed the gulls in an attempt to limit their unnatural food supply.
Erica Medori, 34, of Marlton, was among the happy onlookers at Monday’s news conference. Walking down the Boardwalk last Thursday, she said, she witnessed a brutal theft: a flock of sea gulls swarmed over a child’s ice cream cone before knocking it to the ground and devouring it.
She hopes the city’s latest action brings peace to the beach.
Still, some are wary of the bird abatement technique.
Elle McGee, who has a summer home in Ocean City, said she was initially worried about where one of the largest laughing gull colonies in the U.S. will relocate to, and about the safety of nesting gull babies.
“It seems disruptive. ... When I first heard them talking about it, I thought, ‘Is this good?’ I don’t know,” said McGee, a birder and member of the Cape May Bird Observatory.
But Eric Stiles, president of NJ Audubon, said it’s a humane and common wildlife management practice. He said similar programs exist at airports and dumps throughout the state, though it is the first of its kind in an East Coast shore town.
He compared it to using border collies to chase Canada geese off of lawns.
“It’s one way to nonlethally manage bird populations,” Stiles said. “The idea is, sea gulls think, ‘If I see this predator frequently enough, I’m going to move on.’”