Experts offer ideas for keeping gulls alive on Route 52 causeway

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Ocean City Route 52 dead sea gulls A gull takes flight off the Route 52 causeway fishing pier. Many of these birds have been killed over the last two months on the bridge and officials are trying to figure out why. OCEAN CITY — Capt. Steve Ang of the Ocean City Police Department says the construction of the new Route 52 Causeway caused concerns long before it opened. Would summertime traffic flow smoothly over the 2.5-mile span and into town? Would the steep decline into Ocean City contribute to vehicles slipping and sliding in the wintertime, ultimately leading to an increase in accidents?

No one asked if the bridge would prove to be a death trap to the seagulls that fly over it and perch upon its rails.

Now, with 40 gulls killed in a 40-day period on the causeway, everyone is talking about what is causing the drastic increase in bird fatalities, and what can be done about it.

“We’re averaging one a day,” Bill Hollingsworth, executive director of the Ocean City Humane Society, said Wednesday, Aug. 1. “We got our first goose today.”

The Canada goose, he said, was picked up alive, but died, the same fate suffered by seven of the eight injured gulls the Humane Society retrieved and tried to treat.

“Only one survived,” Hollingsworth said. “The others had such severe injuries – broken wings, broken backs and broken feet – they had to be euthanized.”

Hollingsworth, who said the Humane Society was picking up four or five dead gulls once a month when all four lanes on the bridge first opened to vehicular traffic, said he and his staff have made three trips a week since the end of June to retrieve wounded and dead birds.

“I’ve already been out there twice this week and it’s only Wednesday,” he said.

He said the gulls, which congregate on a stretch of rail on the north side of the bridge, closer to the Somers Point end, are killed when they fail to become airborne quickly enough after taking off.

“When they try to fly vertically off the rail, they are slammed back into the roadway,” Hollingsworth said.

“We don’t know what is causing it or why it is happening,” said Joe Dee, spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation, the agency that funded the $500 million construction project that replaced two drawbridges with two 65-foot fixed spans. “Is it wind currents? We don’t want to speculate. What can be done about it? Why are the birds landing there? What can we do to deter this? We've just recently become aware of it and we’ll continue to monitor it.”

Ocean City’s official recommendation, Hollingsworth said, is to have bird spikes installed along the stretch of rail where the gulls are perching, although it is unknown if that would resolve the problem or simply force the birds to move to another stretch of the bridge. He said he and OCPD Chief Chad Callahan were in agreement that was the most affordable and expedient solution for the DOT.

“We’ll take a look at that,” Dee said when told of the joint Humane Society-police department suggestion. “We’re interested in stopping it (bird fatalities) from continuing.”

Steven Mars, a senior biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said another solution might be to string wire between light poles on the causeway. That would force the gulls higher above the roadway and farther from traffic.

“There is a solution out there,” Ang said. “We shouldn't drive over the bridge everyday and see four or five dead birds.”

“There is always an answer to every problem,” Hollingsworth said. “We want to make the road safer for everyone. Plus, it’s not a good image for Ocean City to have dead birds on the road on the way in.”

Larry Hajna, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said the DEP has not been contacted regarding the dead gulls and that it appears the issue is being handled locally.

Of great concern to the police department is the possibility a motor vehicle accident will be caused by a gull colliding with a car moving at 40 to 50 miles per hour.

“Other things could happen that haven’t happened,” Ang said. “One of the birds could crash into a windshield. We could have an accident, we could have a human injury, we could lose a human life. Fortunately, we haven’t had something more serious occur. Unfortunately, we have had some birds die.”

Hollingsworth said his frequent trips to the section of the bridge where the gulls are being killed led him to observe that the birds are focusing on the marsh below.

“They’re trying to hover over that marsh,” he said. “The wind currents there are real strong and the gulls can’t get out.”

Michael Shepherd, who has written locally about fishing for decades, wrote this email response to the Gazette’s question: What is in the marsh that is attracting the attention of the gulls?

“There are millions of a small bait fish called spot in all of our waters. They are prey for just about everything in the water. I'm thinking these gulls are picking them off, although I have not actually seen it happen. And from what I heard on WOND, they are herring gulls, which are considerably bigger with a larger wing span. It takes longer for them to get airborne and they are flying low into the traffic.”

As for what motorists should do if they see an injured gull on the roadway, Hollingsworth said the Humane Society will respond to calls to 398-4500 between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and the OCPD at 399-9111 will respond after hours. Motorists, he said, should not attempt to approach an injured bird for fear of an attack from the scared animal.

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