furor started with a report last January of an attack on
a dog out for a neighborhood walk on a leash. A lurking
eagle swooped down and sunk its talons into the Labrador's
haunch while the owner hit the pavement screaming.
and state biologists who interviewed the dog owner after
she chased away the eagle called her story very unusual,
given that the dog outweighed the bird by at least five
times. But angry Homer residents were soon marching on
City Hall to call for a ban on the growing backyard practice
of feeding eagles.
Complaints had been rising about the number of eagles
attracted to town. Pet owners were calling state troopers
to say they were afraid to open their doors with white-headed
scavengers loitering thuggishly nearby. They asked if
an attack on a small child might be next.
"People call me all the time," says Lee Mayhan, who started a group called Alaska
Eagle Watch Network to promote more natural raptor lifestyles. "Yesterday there
was a lady right in the middle of town feeding eagles french toast. That's no
way to treat wildlife."
But Homer's outspoken environmentalists, united on such local debates as shallow
gas development and big-box stores, are split on the eagle question. Reformers
are up against a popular local institution. For more than 20 years, the "Eagle
Lady" has been feeding hundreds of eagles in winter from her trailer compound
on the Homer Spit.
Jean Keene, now 80, once told a reporter she didn't believe in the adage "let
nature take its course." People had taken much from wildlife, she said, and she
wanted to give something back. Keene and her helpers tote 30 tons of frozen cannery
waste to the beach every year, drawing photographers and spectators to Homer
along with the eagles, and contributing a big dollop of color to countless television
and newspaper travelogues.
Thirty years ago, a Christmas bird count might find a dozen bald eagles in
Homer. Lately the peak is 500 or more.
On the beach in front of Keene's trailer, mountains and sea provide a backdrop
for close-up photos that have come to dominate the world of bald eagle pictures.
FEEDING A PROBLEM?
Less commonly photographed is the industrial zone of the Spit at the photographers'
backs, where hundreds of gorged eagles linger atop light poles, fuel storage
tanks and radio antennae in a Hitchcockian spectacle of nature gone mad.
In the eyes of the law, feeding eagles is no different than feeding chickadees
-- as long as it doesn't endanger the federally protected birds. Keene's operation
has drawn only an occasional harrumph from biologists. She says she has shortened
her feeding season over the years so the birds will disperse in April and nest.
In the past two years, however, the feeding zones around Homer have multiplied.
Biologists say they've heard reports of eight to 12 backyard locations where
private individuals have started setting out food to draw birds, either for
fun or to entertain bed-and-breakfast guests. Professional photographers have
started their own feeding operations, flipping frozen herring in the air to
create perfect moments for clients in photo seminars. (Some advertisements
on the Internet, for seminars costing $1,500 a week plus lodging and meals,
say the eagles "congregate" in
Homer every winter but don't mention feeding.)
"I wasn't so concerned when Jean was just doing it, but this year we started
getting calls right and left," says Dave Roseneau, a federal bird biologist with
the Homer-based Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Critics say the gathering of eagles means extra predation on sea ducks and
other birds; it also exposes birds to disease and power lines and may be shifting
natural population balances by helping weak juveniles survive.
Defenders of feeding say the critics are overwrought.
They call the practice harmless, saying there is no scientific evidence of
population shifts or other unnatural consequences. They praise Keene for rescuing
injured birds, which are sent to Anchorage for rehabilitation. The boost to
off-season tourism doesn't hurt, either.
"My first concern is the birds," says Keene. "As much as I've been feeding and
around them, never has there been any attempt to attack somebody."
But even Keene says she's getting worried about the consequences of unregulated
feeding. Like other eagle lovers, she worries that the national bird may be
slipping in stature when people start to revile it as a neighborhood pest.
A TOWN DIVIDED
By some reckoning, the current battle over eagles began a few years ago on
a Skyline Drive homestead above Homer.
Ed Bailey, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, has patched together
a 600-acre "nature preserve" since his retirement. He started raising cackling
Canada geese, dug ponds to attract ducks, and spread corn on a hay field and
set out decoys to draw sandhill cranes.
Several years ago, he sold a piece of land and a house to a friend and fellow
conservationist, Steve Tarola. The two saw eye-to-eye on snowmachines and jet
skis. But Tarola, it turned out, liked to feed birds, including eagles.
"Little did I know who I was selling to," says Bailey, a dogged and unbending
environmental campaigner who is no longer on speaking terms with his old friend
and closest neighbor. Bailey felt the eagles, visiting the area for food, were
popping over to his fields to check out the dessert buffet. He said he's lost
young geese to eagles and seen the flocks of cranes driven away in fear. He scans
the skies nervously every day, sometimes seeing 10 or more eagles wheeling overhead "like
"Of course I'm bitter. You can't have a concentration of predators like that
and not have repercussions," says Bailey, who once studied eagles in the Aleutians
and published an ornithological paper about golden eagles in the Shumagins.
"I used to think of the eagle as part of our pristine environment," he says. "Now
I think it's a Dumpster diver."
Tarola sees things differently. Feeding hasn't been shown to hurt the eagles
and brings enjoyment to people, he says. He says he has cut way back to placate
his angry neighbor and never fed in summer anyway. He says experts he has consulted
tell him the eagles won't come back in summer if they're not being fed -- the
problem of attracting predators is Bailey's own making, they say.
"It seems to me a social problem more than a biological problem," says Tarola
about eagle feeding. That was essentially the middle-of-the-road position taken
last winter by the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society: educate the public and
gather more information. Tarola sits on the conservation society board. So did
Bailey, but he resigned when it wouldn't take a stronger stand.
What does "social problem" mean?
"It means some people don't like it," Tarola said. "It also means anything that
endangers eagles should not be done."
Bailey says he has polled 40 bird experts and organizations around the country
and found only one who saw any value in feeding a healthy and growing eagle
population. Bailey, Mayhan and the Anchorage Audubon Society have asked the
city to adopt laws restricting feeding. They also want the state Board of Game
to add bald eagles to the list of animals illegal to feed.
A similar issue is being raised in a state game refuge in Haines, where a guide
wants to use bait to attract eagles gathered in winter for a natural salmon
"This is baiting, not feeding, when they're perfectly capable of feeding themselves," Mayhan
said. "Is this what you want to show tourists, this circus?"
LOCAL REGULATION PONDERED
in April, Keene quit feeding for the winter and the eagles
started to disperse.
Keene met with a reporter in a booth in the Land's End Resort bar marked by
a plaque that said "Jean's Booth." The hotel, which ran "Eagle Safari" specials
over the winter, says the visitors have been a nice boost.
"Jean is a celebrity around the country," said hotel manager Dawn Schneider. "People
around here don't know that, because Jean is an unassuming woman."
Keene said she would support some kind of local regulation.
"The problem has been people doing it on their own, in bad places for the birds," she
said. Another small operation on the Spit was closed down by troopers last winter,
she said, because it was drawing birds into car traffic.
Federal biologists use Keene's viewing station to rescue eagles that have
been reported hurt. But they sometimes wonder if the birds -- hit by cars,
chased by dogs, halibut hooks in their craws -- wouldn't need rescue if they
didn't come to the Spit to feed.
"Some of them were injured because they were out on the Spit," says Roseneau.
The most dramatic eagle rescue came in 1995, after the city installed new
light towers in the Homer harbor. An eagle speared its wing on a lightning
rod atop a 65-foot pole and flailed miserably. Firefighters resorted to calling
up a local rock climber, Dino Banco, who two years earlier had been charged
with criminal trespass for climbing the new light pole to unfurl an anti-oil
banner. Banco ascended the pole with webbing and slings and carried down
the anesthetized 14-pound eagle. But the spindled wing was too badly injured
and the bird had to be euthanized, Roseneau said.
The bigger problem, officials say, is away from the Spit. Scores of eagles
haunt the local landfill where the electric utility has had to install protective
insulation on poles. Around town, Roseneau said, he had three dog-eagle calls
in a single week.
"My husband and I were pretty annoyed," said Emily Ward, who was afraid to get
a new puppy last winter because her Diamond Ridge yard was in the flight path
of 10 eagles feeding at a neighbor's.
"We get calls from people saying 'I've got chickens and ducks. Can I shoot the
eagle?' The answer is no," said trooper Sgt. Jim Hibpshman in Homer. He said
he has yet to receive a defense-of-life-and-property case where someone shoots
an eagle in a chicken coop. He's not sure how that one will be handled.
So far, Homer City Council members have expressed little interest in stepping
into the melee.
Everyone agrees more data would be helpful. No survey of eagle nests around
Kachemak Bay has been done since 1991, so no one can say if the summer population
"I think the effects in summer are less than some people think. But a survey
would show us right off," Roseneau said.
Also useful, they say, would be studies on whether predation of small birds
has gone up.
But the strongest argument for curbing the feeders, Mayhan says, may turn
out to be not scientific but "moral." What will be lost if residents and tourists
learn to see the presence of eagles as another sign of man? Will the natural
wonder be siphoned away from the sight of a bald eagle wheeling up a Homer bluff
thermal on a warm spring afternoon?
Reporter Tom Kizzia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or in Homer at 1-907-235-4244