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Birds of prey protect beachgoers from seagulls in Ocean City, N.J. for fourth year

2021 05 28-e lee-ian crowley-ocean city nj boardwalk-raptors control seagulls launch
Emma Lee
/
`WHYY
Ian Turner of East Coast Falcons releases a Harris's hawk on the Ocean City, N.J., boardwalk. The town hires falconers to keep the seagulls at bay during the tourist season.

Among the many attractions in Ocean City, N.J. are a couple of Harris’ Hawks that patrol the boardwalk.

For the fourth year in a row, the Jersey Shore community are turning to birds of prey to protect people from seagulls that have wreaked havoc for plenty of beachgoers.

“[You had] aggressive seagulls that were inundating the boardwalk and attacking people, attacking their food [and] bothering young children,” said Erik Swanson, the owner of East Coast Falcons, based in Lodi.

Swanson said they were used to working airports and military installations. After seeing the problem on the boardwalk firsthand, he decided that his company must work with the city to abate the problem. He added that it was important for young children to not walk away hating the beach.

“This is your young stage to enjoy the beach and to become familiar with the beach and to love the beach,” Swanson said.

There are four Harris’s Hawks that the company has brought to the boardwalk. There are also five falcons and a Eurasian eagle-owl with the charge of keeping the boardwalk seagull-free. The City of Ocean City will pay $250,000 for the season.

When WHYY News visited the boardwalk, two Harris’s Hawks were about to start a shift. The male was named Polo, the female didn’t yet have a name.

“We kind of wait for the personalities to come out and then we give them a name,” said Ian Turner, a falconer who came from Tullahoma, Tennessee to New Jersey for the beach season.

She is being referred to as “Karen” at the moment, in part, due to people’s recommendation. “That’s not to offend any Karen, but she has Karen-like tendencies,” Turner is quick to say. “I’ve had plenty of Karens come up to me and they absolutely love that name.”

“Karen” and Polo glide up and down the boardwalk between 9th and 12th streets with the goal of keeping the seagulls away from the people. It was a breezy day on this occasion, Turner said that they enjoy the conditions.

“You’ll see them as we start walking. They’re going to start floating around and having fun,” Turner pointed out.

The hawks were quite the attention-grabbers as they flew from their perches – light poles, top of buildings, and the gorilla head at Congo Falls Adventure Golf – to receive a treat from Turner: quail meat.

Each time one of the hawks rested on Turner’s arms, beachgoers stopped to look at the birds, which allowed Turner to educate those gathered. Some kids who were nervous were encouraged by their parents or guardians to get close. One child even had a picture taken with the hawk. To see the birds in person was impressive to many.

Barbara Bee, a retired teacher from Greensburg, Pennsylvania said she read about the birds in the newspaper before seeing them in action in person for the first time this year.

“It’s just fascinating … using nature to take care of nature,” Bee said.