By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
OCEAN CITY – With piercing orange eyes, a powerful, curved beak and fierce talons, Ozzy the owl is an apex predator in the bird world.
If you don’t believe how intimidating this mega-sized Eurasian eagle owl really is, simply watch how fast Ocean City’s normally hyper-aggressive seagulls scatter when he’s out flapping his wings on the Boardwalk.
After some initial skepticism, it is now clear that the city’s decision to bring in Ozzy and other trained raptors to scare the gulls away from popular tourist areas such as the beaches and Boardwalk has been paying off, officials said.
“This one has been working out fantastic,” Erik Swanson, owner of East Coast Falcons, the contractor hired by the city, said of the efforts to frighten the swarms of marauding gulls using birds of prey.
In what was certainly an unprecedented appearance by an owl in City Council Chambers, Swanson brought Ozzy with him Thursday night to give a report to the governing body and Mayor Jay Gillian on the success of the bird abatement program.
“By all accounts thus far, it’s been pretty successful,” City Business Administrator George Savastano said.
Ozzy, along with the falcons and hawks that are part of the team of raptors owned by East Coast Falcons, have become celebrities in the process and have also attracted national and international publicity for Ocean City.
Doug Bergen, the city’s public information officer, told the Council members that he has received media inquiries about the raptors from “Dublin, Ireland, to Auckland, New Zealand.”
The result, Bergen and Swanson said, is that the city has benefited from tons of overwhelmingly positive free publicity.
“The amount of coverage is unbelievable,” Swanson said of the numerous media interviews he and his employees have done.
The city is paying East Coast Falcons $2,100 per day to have the raptors patrol the skies over the entire island, particularly the popular beaches and Boardwalk. The plan is to bring them back next summer if the program works.
“The money we’ve spent on this thing, we’ve gotten back tenfold,” Gillian said.
Judging by the comments at the Council meeting, the raptors are doing their job in deterring the gulls from swooping in on unsuspecting summer tourists and snatching pizza, French fries and other food right out of their hands.
“I think we’ve made a lot of people feel safer,” Gillian said.
The mayor decided to hire East Coast Falcons after the city heard numerous complaints from tourists and residents about the aggressive gulls menacing people for their food.
The final straw for Gillian was when he witnessed a dive-bombing gull “smack” a small child in the face. He has repeatedly characterized it as a public safety issue.
Ocean City is the only resort town on the East Coast using raptors to frighten away the pesky gulls.
The raptors are out chasing gulls each day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. They will stay in Ocean City until Labor Day. The falcons and hawks work the daytime shift, while Ozzy the owl takes over at night.
Perched quietly on Swanson’s arm, Ozzy occasionally flapped his wings in the Council Chambers to show off his impressive physique. He belongs to one of the largest owl species in the world.
For the gulls, Ozzy is “Dracula,” Swanson said, drawing laughs from the Council members and the audience.
However, neither Ozzy nor the other raptors kill the gulls. They simply scare them away, Swanson stressed.
“We just want to stop them from harassing people out on the Boardwalk and to get them where they should be,” he said of the gulls.
Instead of munching on human food, the gulls should be eating fish and crabs from the ocean and bays. Using the raptors as “watch birds,” the idea is to drive the gulls back into their natural habitat.
“The gulls are still here. They’re just where they should be – out on the ocean,” Swanson said.
In the meantime, Gillian has urged the public not to feed the gulls, emphasizing that the birds are congregating on the beaches, the Boardwalk and other areas where they can grab quick meals instead of staying in their natural habitat. In Ocean City, it is against the law to feed seagulls and other wildlife.
The mayor has working with Boardwalk merchants on other ways to deter the gulls, including having them give their customers enclosed food containers for their takeout meals.
Once the raptors leave after Labor Day, the gulls are expected to return to the beaches and Boardwalk within a few weeks, Swanson pointed out.
“They’ll always come back. It may take them a few weeks,” he said.
But for now, with Ocean City still crowded with tourists during the bustling summer vacation season, the gulls have largely fled the scene, thanks to the raptors.
The Council members said they have noticed that there are far fewer gulls flying around the beaches and Boardwalk.
“I was on the Boardwalk one morning and I don’t think I saw any,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman said.
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