A town's noble nuisance


April 10, 2005

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 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.

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.

That thought 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 dogs, according to Ralph Broshes, a local veterinarian. (He believes bald eagles see white, small and furry, and think rabbit.) He said the birds fly into cars, electrocute themselves on power lines, get tangled in fences and make themselves sick from gorging on garbage at the Homer dump.

Bald eagles are fearsomely big - as large as 12 pounds, with wingspans of up to 7 feet and talons that can rip through a human wrist - and their droppings are fearsomely stinky. Out at the end of the Homer Spit, the stench can be breathtaking.

Not surprisingly, there is a 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. The cure would be simple: Stop feeding the eagles.

For nearly three decades, bald eagles have gotten wise to the daily fish handouts available on the Homer Spit between December and April. As many as 650 bald eagles have been able to count on 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 hang out.

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.

She's Jean Keene, 81, the "Eagle Lady," the 2004 winner of the Lifetime Meritorious Service Award from the American Bald Eagle Foundation. She has been on television all over the world. Keene has been feeding fish to bald eagles on the Homer Spit for 27 consecutive winters.

Nearly every morning at 8:30, she emerges from her mobile home 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 packing plant.

"Nobody wants to be the bad guy with Jean," said city manager Walt Wrede.

There is also a financial component to Keene's stature, Wrede said. When she throws out her fish, she usually draws at least 150 eagles and a dozen out-of-town photographers.

The professional and amateur photographers are important to Homer's winter economy. Wrede said they rent cars, eat at restaurants and stay at otherwise empty tourist hotels.

Still, there is a sense abroad that turning bald eagles into wintertime freeloaders isn't quite right, especially in Homer, a town where many residents are left-leaning greenies who, as Wrede put it, "are committed to natural ecosystems." When Keene feeds the eagles - accompanied by a gaggle of visiting photographers with tripods and super-long lenses - Homer residents sometimes walk by on the beach and shout about "welfare eagles."

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.