OCEAN CITY — What do you do when sea gulls regularly steal your guests’ fries and funnel cakes with impunity?

You bring in bigger, badder birds.

Ocean City did just that earlier this month, and so far, it seems the gulls have gotten the message.

A hawk named Sage uses lamp posts on the Boardwalk like a sailor uses a crow’s nest — waiting, watching. That’s about all she needs to do: When Sage is nearby, loitering gulls disperse for safer airspace.

“The sea gulls are starting to understand what’s going on here, that they’re not supposed to be on the Boardwalk,” said PJ Simonis, a falconer working with Lodi-based East Coast Falcons. “And it looks like they’re moving out to the water and starting to get crabs and clams.”

In early August, the city announced a partnership with East Coast Falcons for $2,100 a day until Labor Day to ward off gulls. If it worked, they said, they would begin discussions to have them back next year. Already, the city — and Boardwalk workers — have seen results.

“Our newest city team members — falcons, hawks and an owl — appear to be doing their job in holding the gulls at bay. We will continue to monitor the program in the next two weeks,” said Mayor Jay Gillian. “If it continues to be successful, we will bring it back for next summer. Any investment that can protect the quality of life for our residents and guests is worthwhile.”

Previously, gulls tended to congregate near ice cream shops, said Brice Huffines, 31, a cook at Pisa Pizza on the Boardwalk at Eighth Street.

“Before they were here, (the gulls would) actually dive bomb you,” Huffines said. If they saw food, “it doesn’t matter who you are, they would take it out of your hands.”

Not anymore, said Huffines. Not since Simonis started walking the boards, bird in hand, which he does from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

A 4-year-old falcon starts the day, and four Harris’ hawks, all hatched this year, work when the sun is highest in the sky. As desert birds, they thrive in heat, said Erik Swanson, owner of East Coast Falcons. An owl, a 9-year-old named Ozzy, takes the night shift. On Wednesday, any gulls near the Boardwalk flew high up, instead of hovering near concessions.

Swanson believes Ocean City is the first shore town on the East Coast to implement a gull abatement program using raptors.

Simonis walks the boards wearing a falconry glove and a khaki bucket hat as the raptors fly overhead, following as he whistles and calls for them.

“There has to be a constant presence in order for them to stay away,” Simonis said. “If we don’t keep flying raptors, then sea gulls come back.”

As the raptors scare off birds, they draw in vacationers. Interested passersby angle for pictures and pepper Simonis with questions.

“It’s a huge draw, to the point where sometimes it’s difficult to do my job,” he said.

The company said they have kept the gulls at bay without bloodshed.

Naysayers want the city to leave the birds alone, claiming the raptors are killing the gulls, Swanson said.

“No, we’re not. We haven’t killed one. The birds haven’t caught one,” Swanson said. “We’re intentionally flying the birds to do that. ... They’re still there, they’re just not on the Boardwalk.”

Some gulls try their luck and “harass” the raptors, said Simonis, but the hawks pay them no mind. They have a job to do.

From her vantage point as a cashier at the Promenade Food Court, Sydney Gillette, 16, said she has seen people, including children, subject to aerial attacks.

They use fewer to-go boxes now to shield their food.

“We don’t have to make a lot of (food) to go anymore,” Gillette said. “People can just take the fries and walk without having to worry about it.”

In a roundabout way, the program may even be good for the gulls’ health. One resident told Swanson he’s seen gulls fishing in the ocean.

“We just need to change the food source on the birds,” he said, “from the easy food source to their natural food source.”

Contact: 609-272-7260


Twitter @ACPressColtShaw

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