BARNEGAT LIGHT — Captain Ed Yates whistles, and a large gull flies down and lands a few feet from his boat anchored at a Barnegat Light marina.
He’s your typical seagull, Yates says: Smart, resourceful and sweet.
Yates named his white-feathered friend Steve, after a man who used to work at the dock.
“Once they get to know you, they trust you and eat out of your hand,” Yates said, holding out an orange Goldfish for the bird.
Nicknamed the “rats of the sky,” seagulls have the unique ability to unify both tourists and year-round residents.
Most consider them irritating, french fry-stealing thieves with wings who unleash their poop from high above on unsuspecting victims lounging on the beach.
But for some, their squawks are a welcoming sign that summer is nearing. Gulls, Yates said, can be your pal.
“They go into the water for bait fish, and that tells us where to go to find bigger fish,” said Yates, who takes up to 40 people at a time to sea on his charter boat named Susan Hudson.
The tension between humans and the avian population may stem from the fact that, around the southern New Jersey shore, there are a ton of them.
Accidentally drop food on the Ocean City Boardwalk on a hot, summer day, and a throng of relentless gulls will dive for the scraps.
Stone Harbor’s marshes are home to one of the largest laughing gull colonies across the Eastern Seaboard, said Christina Davis, an environmental specialist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.
“It certainly is one of the largest colonies in the region,” she said.
Across New Jersey, there were more than 48,000 migratory laughing gulls in 109 colonies, according to a 2016 aerial survey by the division. There are three commons types in the state — herring gulls, laughing gulls, great black-backed gulls. And seagulls, technically, isn’t the proper term for any of them.
As for their sometimes aggressive behavior, blame humans, said Eric Stiles, president of New Jersey Audubon.
Over the past 100 years, people have developed gulls’ homes — salt marshes and barrier islands — to capacity. The highly intelligent birds are human-like, Stiles said, and simply adapted to their changing environment by swiping hoagies left on beach blankets and stray crumbs.
“Gulls survived hundreds of years without french fries,” Stiles said. “But we built on top of 90% of their habitat ... and they’ve changed their behavior to survive.”
Now, he said, people need to learn to co-exist.
Some waterfront restaurants put protective coverings around outdoor seating patios to stop gulls from flying in, and visitors know to cover their snacks with a napkin as they walk down the boardwalk.
Even road designs at times take gulls into consideration. In 2012, after more than 30 birds were found dead on the bridge, the state Department of Transportation placed wires on railings along the Route 52 causeway to stop gulls from perching there and then flying into cars.
Ocean City made headlines three years ago when officials said the municipality would more strictly enforce its ordinance against feeding gulls and other wildlife, which holds an up to $500 fine.
“The city wants to be proactive before anyone gets hurt,” Mayor Jay Gillian said at the time.
And though pesky gulls may be ordinary around here, birders say we should still appreciate them as the unofficial mascot of the Jersey Shore. The Cape May Bird Observatory includes discussions on gulls in its nature walks, alongside robins, blue jays and other more rare species.
Love them or hate them, they signal that warmer weather is coming.
“Imagine this,” Stiles said. “If you had never, ever seen a laughing gull in this world and you saw one, you’d say ‘My god, they’re beautiful.’”