By MADDY VITALE, OCNJDAILY
When it comes to choosing a vacation spot, it isn’t only the family-friendly environment, Boardwalk, beaches, and downtown shopping, that attract visitors to Ocean City.
What the city lacks also adds to its allure – gulls. Since 2019, the city has contracted with a bird abatement company to use raptors to chase away pesky gulls. And since then, visitors have been enjoying their vacations a bit more.
People are able to enjoy Boardwalk treats, lounge on the beaches, and not have to worry about gulls swooping down to snatch a meal.
And the company that is helping to make those vacations even better is East Coast Falcons. The city renewed the contract for the Lodi, N.J.-based business.
“We’re happy to bring back East Coast Falcons,” Mayor Jay Gillian said of the bird abatement program Wednesday. “The program has been successful and effective, and it will always be important to keep our boardwalk and beaches safe for all the families that enjoy them.”
The company will be paid $1,993 per day, with the annual amount of its contract estimated at $250,000, according to a City Council resolution that authorized the company’s hiring for 2022 at a Council meeting last month.
City spokesman Doug Bergen said the program will run on weekends in the spring, continue daily through the heart of the summer season, and extend into the fall on weekends. The exact schedule is yet to be determined.
Erik Swanson, the owner of East Coast Falcons, stressed that the raptors don’t kill the gulls. They just chase them away.
“What I realized is that the majority of the people who come to Ocean City come for a week and it is their one vacation of the year,” Swanson said in an interview Wednesday. “To have it ruined by gulls is terrible. This is what people I met on the Boardwalk have told me.”
In addition to Swanson, there are three full-time and about four to six part-time falconers to oversee the hawks, falcons, and an owl from Memorial Day to Columbus Day weekend.
“We will have somewhere around 11 birds and one owl,” Swanson pointed out.
Since being contracted by Ocean City, East Coast Falcons has primarily focused on the Boardwalk and the beachfront.
But with COVID-19 creating the rise in popularity for outdoor dining, Swanson and his falconers have ventured out to other areas of the island at the asking of the mayor. Specifically, the focus has been on outdoor dining areas along Asbury Avenue and other restaurants in town.
“This year we will be everywhere flying the birds,” Swanson said. “We got extra falcons just for Ocean City. We are covering the full island. I have other guys coming in to cover the restaurants in town, all along Asbury Avenue, other tourist locations, and parking lots.”
Swanson said over the last couple of years they have spread out their coverage area, but this year they will have even more falconers patrolling the island.
“We are happy to chase away the gulls,” Swanson added.
And over the last few years of the program, the falconers have gotten some celebrity sort of status.
“People absolutely love the program. One of the falconers last summer felt like a rock star. The mayor seems to be ecstatic about the idea and how it is working and he freely expressed that.”
The mayor and the city administration created an area to house the birds, called a mews, a falcon term for a hawk cage, Swanson explained.
“The city gave us a spot to keep our birds right next to the Boardwalk,” Swanson said. “There will be less of a lapse of coverage. Before, it would take half an hour to get the birds.”
In 2019, Mayor Jay Gillian and the city administration hired East Coast Falcons after receiving numerous complaints about aggressive gulls menacing people for their food.
The final straw for Gillian was when he saw a dive-bombing gull “smack” a small child in the face. He has repeatedly characterized it as a public safety issue.
The raptors have been overwhelmingly successful in chasing the gulls back into their natural habitat, the bays, marshlands, and ocean, according to city officials.