Occasionally, something happens that causes a person to change their perspective. The buzzphrase in the business world is "paradigm shift." Sometimes, a perspective shift is trivial, such as a visual trick in which a drawing looks like one thing (say, a vase) until you notice it could be something else (say, two faces in profile); sometimes it's life-altering, such as the death of a loved one precipitating a loss of religious faith. Usually, it's somewhere in between.
I was recently led to a shift in my perspective on the topic of feeding bald eagles. I once considered this practice benign or even positive. After hearing the opinions of those who oppose the intentional feeding of wild eagles by humans and doing a little more research on the subject, I've changed my mind. At the very least, it is imperative that I use this forum to present the other side of the story.
How I Got Involved In The Topic
In January 2005, I had occasion to visit the beautiful community of Homer on Alaska's Kachemak Bay. Shortly thereafter, I published a column on this very website entitled, "The Bald Eagles of Homer, Alaska." In that essay, I profiled Jean Keene, "The Eagle Lady." Ms. Keene has been feeding fish scraps to bald eagles in Alaska during the winter months since about 1980.
I have never claimed to be an investigative reporter. My columns here on The Sportsman's Guide website reflect my experiences, thoughts, and observations. At best, I am a sort of Erma Bombeck of the woods. Occasionally, I stumble into controversy in my wanderings.
I saw Jean Keene as a likeable, lively character with a colorful past and an interesting mission -- I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. I saw anecdotal evidence and popular press write-ups attesting to increased survival among eagles that received supplemental wintertime feeding, and that seemed like a good thing. Good for eagles, good for people. In my ignorance of the intricacies of the greater Kachemak Bay area ecosystem, I didn't stop to consider the wider impacts.
The Dark Side Of Eagle Feeding
It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or an investigative journalist) to realize that if you artificially inflate the population of a predator species, you create problems for the prey species in the ecosystem.
Populations of ducks, cranes, kittiwakes, loons, and other seabirds, stand to take a serious hit when the eagle population burgeons. The feeding of these uber-predators might also attract other predators such as crows, gulls, magpies, and ravens, potentially exacerbating the diminishment of the prey species. And eagle predation doesn't stop with other birds. Poultry, sea otter pups, and even small pets have been known to disappear in the talons of a feeding bald eagle. Two-and-a-half decades of "baiting" eagles are sure to have an impact, and that impact will not be good for prey species.
In truth, eagles themselves don't necessarily fare well when their numbers are artificially inflated. One-source estimates over 700 eagles have been electrocuted in power line incidents across Alaska over the past 15 years to 20 years. They have been trapped, shot, poisoned, and hit by vehicles. Speaking of vehicles, there's an airport about four miles from where the Eagle Lady feeds hundreds of eagles each winter day on the Homer Spit. Big birds and small planes are not a good combination.
Then there's the human element. While Jean Keene encourages people to stay in their vehicles while she feeds eagles, there's little to stop a clueless, selfish shutterbug from trying to emulate her, feeding eagles frozen fish from another beachfront location. There is no doubt in my mind that this behavior leads to trouble for all species concerned.
Let's Not Condone Eagle Feeding
The truth of it is that I was seduced by my own experience of seeing so many eagles. I was star-struck, mesmerized. It was like a celebrity sighting: "Ooh, there's Brad Pitt having a hamburger, let's sit a little closer."
I should be ashamed for not thinking things through. And I am. I am not an investigative journalist, I'm just a gal who writes an opinion column. But I've long held the opinion that it's a very bad idea to feed wild creatures, and now I extend that opinion to the feeding of the bald eagles of Homer, Alaska.
Sally O'Neal Coates has written weekly for Sportsman's Guide for five years.