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Where Eagles Dare

In the Town of Homer, Handouts Are Turning A Proud National Symbol Into a Bit of a Pest

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A03

HOMER, Alaska -- Not long ago, a bald eagle smacked right into Kurt Marquardt's head.

The bird bruised him and nearly knocked him off his feet. But it could have been much worse. Marquardt, a construction worker, was wearing a hard hat, and the eagle ripped an impressive chunk out of it, not out of his skull.

Bald eagles gather at Keene's home, where she throws out fish scraps to the birds. Homer's eagles draw tourists but also kill pets, collide with cars and hang out at the town dump. (Photos Blaine Harden -- The Washington Post)

This brain-rattling encounter with the national symbol of the United States got Marquardt to thinking: Perhaps the bald eagle situation here in Homer is veering out of control.

It's a thought that occurs with increasing frequency in this tourist and fishing town of 4,200 built around a spit of land that juts out into the halibut-rich waters of Kachemak Bay.

Bald eagles are to Homer what pigeons are to Central Park, only more so.

For years, bald eagles have been dining here on small white cats and small white dogs, according to Ralph Broshes, a local veterinarian who for 30 years has been on call when the raptors run amok. (He believes bald eagles see white, small and furry -- and think rabbit.) He said the birds periodically fly into cars, electrocute themselves on power lines, get tangled up in fences, gouge each other's eyes out and make themselves sick from gorging on toxic garbage at the Homer dump.

Bald eagles are fearsomely big -- as large as 12 pounds, with wingspans of up to seven feet and talons that can rip through a human wrist -- and their copious droppings are fearsomely stinky. Out at the end of the Homer Spit, the stench can be breathtaking.

Not surprisingly, there is a grass-roots movement in Homer to do something about bald eagles. One of the movement's leaders is Edgar Bailey, a retired wildlife biologist who used to welcome sandhill cranes and other waterfowl to ponds surrounding his home on a bluff above Homer -- until the eagles slaughtered some of the cranes and scared off the other birds.

"We are turning our national bird into a dumpster diver," complained Bailey, who insisted that his position on the issue is "not just a NIMBY [not in my backyard] thing."

The cure for Homer's winter of big-bird discontent would be simple: Stop feeding the eagles.

For nearly three decades, bald eagles across south-central Alaska have gotten wise to the daily fish handouts that are available on the Homer Spit between late December and April. Without having to fuss with hunting, without having to worry about freezing to death, between 300 and 650 bald eagles have been able to count on large helpings of semi-frozen herring, halibut and salmon that each winter weigh in at between 50,000 and 70,000 pounds, depending on how many eagles decide to hang out in Homer.

While the cure for eagle trouble is easy to explain, it's hard to implement. That's partly because the person in charge of handouts is a local hero and international media celebrity.

She's Jean Keene, the "Eagle Lady," the 2004 winner of the Lifetime Meritorious Service Award from the American Bald Eagle Foundation. She's the subject of an admiring picture book. She has been on television all over the world and celebrated in feature stories from Tokyo to Prague. She also happens to be 81 years old and is an exceedingly nice person to talk to.

Keene, a one-time rodeo cowgirl from Minnesota, has been feeding fish to bald eagles on the Homer Spit for 27 consecutive winters. Nearly every morning at 8:30, despite painful arthritis and bitterly cold weather, she emerges from her mobile home (which is parked on the spit near the water and is a gift from one of her many admirers) and tosses out several hundred pounds of fish. Most of it is spoiled or freezer-burned stuff given to her by a friend at a nearby packing plant.

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