One of the city’s most popular eateries is having a seagull problem.
Sullivan’s Castle Island, a local favorite in South Boston for hot dogs, hamburgers, fried clams, and ice cream, has closed its outdoor seating area in front of the restaurant for the last couple of days, due to seagulls snatching food away from unsuspecting patrons.
Orange traffic cones sat on top of the picnic tables with yellow caution tape strung between them and signs nearby warned diners to cover their food and “beware” of seagulls.
Of course, this was hardly enough to keep customers from stopping into Sullivan’s for lunch on Thursday.
Amy Paige, 49, a South Boston native who now lives in Roxbury, didn’t seem too worried as she and her son, Errol, enjoyed their food on a bench next to the closed-off area.
“I would punch one, I’m not even kidding,” Paige said, laughing. “They don’t bother us at all.”
Paige said she and her son know better than to leave their food uncovered, especially after one gull had the gall to rob her friend of a cheeseburger.
A manager at the restaurant declined to comment about the closed tables and referred questions to director of operations Dan O’Donnell. O’Donnell responded to a message but said he was not available to comment Thursday.
Assistant general manager William Cummings told WBZ-TV that the restaurant will remake food for free if it is stolen by a gull. But that policy caused some problems last weekend as the thieving birds’ antics led to the kitchen being overwhelmed with reorders.
Andrew Vitz, MassWildlife’s state ornithologist, said gulls are “pretty fast learners” and can lose their inhibitions around people after being given food.
“Once they start getting a food reward, they’re going to keep coming back,” Vitz said in a phone interview. “There are no real repercussions for them, so they’re going to get more brazen over time, and that’s what’s going on, it sounds like, at this restaurant.”
The most common species in the area are great black-backed gulls, the largest gulls in the world, and herring gulls, he said. The gull population has been declining since the 1990s and is starting to approach concerning levels, Vitz said.
“The rate of decline is pretty steep, and it’s starting to get a lot more attention from biologists in terms of [whether] we need to be concerned about this population decline,” he said. “We’re starting to ask that question.”
Vitz said he hasn’t heard of anyone being hurt by a gull, but as wild animals, their behavior can be unpredictable.
“They’re not going after the people, they’re going after the food,” he said.
Vitz stressed that it is never wise to feed the gulls or any wild animal for that matter.
“People do it all the time, but there are longer-term ramifications from that behavior,” he said. “It just brings on potential conflict between people and wildlife.”
Outside Sullivan’s on Thursday, a strong wind came off Pleasure Bay as a flock of gulls flew around the area but did not seem to bother any customers, who ate at tables over by the water, away from the blocked-off seating.
Tod Wendland, who had just flown in from Cincinnati and was having lunch with his daughter, said although the closed-off area was “not a big deal,” it was “kind of ridiculous.”
“We come out to sit down and they have it blocked off, but yet 50 feet away, you can sit down and eat no problem,” Wendland, 48, said.
Paige, the mother who said the only thing a gull would get from her is a punch in the beak, said she’d never seen Sullivan’s close its tables because of this issue. She and her son theorized that the gulls have learned how to more effectively prey on unsuspecting patrons.
“That’s our theory — is that they are getting smarter and that they are more stealthy than they used to be,” she said.
Meanwhile, a Sullivan’s staff member called out to a group of four kids exiting the restaurant, “Watch out for the seagulls with those fries!”
A short time later, a couple of gulls landed near a pair of boys who were eating.
“Right behind you!” the same staff member called out. “Don’t feed them!”