An invitation to join Jean Keene for breakfast at her Homer Spit home between Christmas and the first part of April means one of two things: 1) If you're anything besides a bald eagle, you only get to watch; and, 2) if you're a bald eagle, come on in, because this buffet's for you.
It all began innocently enough about 20 years ago.
"One day I threw out some scraps that I didn't want to see go to waste," the 77-year-old said. "And that's how it all started."
Since then, Keene and the eagles -- sometimes more than 600 in a morning -- have been the subject of numerous magazine articles, including People and LIFE, and numerous television interviews, such as those on CBS and the Discovery Channel.
Wounded eagles have a friend in Keene, who works closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage. The most recent and most seriously injured raptor was treated by Jim Scott, director of the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, and released back to the wild last summer.
Photo provided by Jean Keene
Keene's interaction with the raptors has been the feature of several European documentaries, and she has traveled to Germany to speak through an interpreter to students about her experiences.
On any given winter morning, her small yard is filled with elaborate camera equipment.
"Photographers call for appointments starting after the first of December," Keene said. "I try to keep it down to four or five people in my yard at a time. It isn't a place where you can walk in and out when you want to."
Keene said she schedules photographers for a week at a time.
Jean Keene of Homer takes a break from feeding the hundreds of bald eagles that arrive for breakfast at her Homer Spit home every morning between the end of December and the first part of April.
Photo by McKibben Jackinsky
"That way I can share it with all of them," she said.
Being around animals was part Keene's childhood on a northern Minnesota farm.
"I always worked with horses and livestock," she said. "And I always fed the birds and squirrels."
When she was 21, she headed to Minneapolis, working in supper clubs and eventually opening up a couple of her own little restaurants.
Local businesses and residents keep Keene stocked in some 66,000 pounds of fish necessary to ensure her winged neighbors survive Southcentral Alaska's coldest months.
Photo by McKibben Jackinsky
After hearing that a rodeo was looking for a trick rider, Keene signed up.
"There was a man who worked with me until I knew what to do," she said.
Her horse, Flinder, also was readied for the assignment. Not only was the horse trained, but Keene dyed the white horse's tail and mane a fiery red to match her own hair.
The danger of this new adventure didn't phase Keene.
"Risky? Walking across the street can be risky," she said.
However, while performing a move referred to as a "death drag," Keene got too far back on the saddle and missed a handhold. She fell, knocking herself out when her head hit the arena wall. Her horse was finally brought to a halt, but not before Keene's knee was broken in 15 places.
Sidelined from trick riding, Keene spent time hauling cattle in an 18-wheel tractor and trailer. She also went into dog grooming, worked for a veterinarian and raised English cockers and poodles.
A 1972 family wedding in Fairbanks brought Keene to Alaska.
"Then I came up two or three times and went out to St. Paul Island and Barrow and Prudhoe Bay and Kotzebue to see what it was like," she said.
After seeing Anchorage in the wintertime, Keene decided to relocate. She returned to Minnesota, sold everything she could, packed everything she could not sell into a small travel trailer and headed north.
Lonnie, Keene's son, was 17 at the time and decided to remain in Minnesota. Every October, Keene travels south to visit her son and other family members.
Reaching Homer, Keene pulled her trailer into a spot at John and Peggy Chappel's campground on the spit. The trailer hasn't moved since then, in spite of the heavy winds Keene has experienced on the strip of land that juts five miles out into Kachemak Bay.
"I've been out here with a minus-40 wind chill," she said. "And the wind gets pretty strong sometimes. But when it gets windy, you just dress warm and keep the electric blanket on."
For the last 17 years before she retired at the age of 72, Keene was a supervisor for Icicle Seafoods Inc., overseeing "mainly crab, and I also did the herring line, halibut line and shrimp also for a while. I didn't do salmon, but just about everything else."
Tim Hamilton, a former Icicle Seafood co-worker, met Keene in 1984. He said the crew at Icicle used to call her, "Jean Keene, the rodeo queen" in honor of her days trick riding.
While traveling in Thailand, Hamilton and his wife, Annie, found a silver ring that's designed in the shape of an eagle-like bird.
"This is Jean," they agreed.
Proudly displayed on Keene's finger, the ring is a tribute to her commitment to help the eagles make it through Southcentral Alaska's coldest months.
"Annie and I have a huge amount of respect for Jean," Hamilton said of his and his wife's admiration for Keene. "She works hard and it's not for her. She's an unselfish hard worker."
Eagles travel from as far away as Kodiak to have breakfast in Keene's yard. During the course of the winter, she goes through approximately 60,000 pounds of fish donated by Homer residents and businesses like Kachemak Gear Shed. Storing it in freezer vans, Keene brings out totes of fish every morning, thawing it right before she cuts it into chunks to toss to the birds.
"Being in the bait business, I always ended up with a lot of excess bait, broken box bait, different types of bait," said Ken Quinn, one of the owners of the Gear Shed. The bait he referred to was mainly herring, but sometimes cod or salmon.
"When fishermen would have extra bait left over at the end of the (fishing) season, I'd help (Keene) find a place to store it. She goes through a lot of fish," Quinn said. "And so, through the years, I always make sure that she's got some fish."
As Keene's reputation for working with eagles has spread around the world, Quinn's generosity paid off. Photographers buy bait from him to take to Keene.
"She's devoted herself so much to that project," Quinn said. "Not everyone could tolerate what she does. A lot of people just don't have a clue."
Keene has her admirers, but she also has her critics.
"I've been called all kinds of names," she said. "I've had some people stand right in the middle of the feeding area and say, 'Move me.' I just ignore them. If they haven't got anything more important going in their life, I feel sorry for them."
Dave Roseneau, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said, "I prefer wildlife not be fed but I don't see major problems with what's going on here.
"Technically, feeding eagles is no different than putting out bird feeders for chickadees, but it can attract birds into situations where it increases danger for them," Roseneau said, referring to power lines and vehicles.
The wildlife biologist said he has occasionally received complaints from people who believe Keene is "attracting more eagles to the area and the eagles are then doing things like eating other seabirds." However, Roseneau described bird populations as "pretty stable."
He said feeding the eagles has developed "a situation where young birds tend to be helped through the winter. All this has the potential to expand beyond normal feeding resources. If feeding is stopped, it could be a problem."
Jim Scott, director of the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, shared Roseneau's concern.
"You can't imagine (the work involved) unless you walk a mile in (Keene' s) shoes," Scott said. "The work load is just tremendous. She just works like a beaver. She's done a lot of excellent care. On the other hand, she can't keep that up forever. It's a situation that may have to bite the bullet."
Referring to the number of visitors who come to the area to witness Keene's operation, Scott said, "I think that I at least need to mention that he who benefits from these processes, needs to also apply some elbow grease to make sure that they happen.
"If the city wants to be supportive of getting the benefit of the tourism, they need to provide a helping hand or they need to bite the bullet and let the eagles go somewhere else," he said. "I don't think Jean will ever do that. She'll probably die handing (the eagles) food before letting that happen. I admire her for that."
Roseneau and Scott take over when injured eagles find their way to Keene's yard. The most recent injury, and most serious, Scott said, required Scott to graft skin from the bird's neck to its head, a procedure that also involved reconstructing an eyelid. The eagle was released back to the wild last fall.
"That's one of (Keene's) greatest successes and one of mine, too," he said.
Keene's way of life draws calls to the Homer Chamber of Commerce.
"Absolutely yes, we interact with her," said Derotha Ferraro, chamber executive director. "People often use us as a way to reach her. They'll call here and ask about her and her feedings."
The chamber's dollars, however, are mainly focused on developing summer tourism.
"As far as promoting it, we don't spend very much, if any, promoting winter tourism," Ferraro said. "It has nothing to do with (Keene). We just don't spend money promoting the winter tourism industry."
A winter recreation show in Anchorage during the month of September provides an opportunity for the chamber to present a video of Keene and the eagles, Ferraro said.
"(Keene) has certainly put Homer on the map more than once," she said. "We have several nice coffee table books that have been created based on winter photography of eagles in Homer. And it certainly has allowed some individual businesses to have a promotional tool. Jean is such a great advocate for Homer."
But mostly, Keene is an advocate for the eagles.
"I always get more people (stopping by) after an article comes out," she said. "Some people park by the road and they walk in thinking the birds will be scared of the car. But it's just the opposite. People can get much closer if they stay in their car and drive up to the feeding area.
"Stay in the car. You'll see them a lot closer than if you get out and try to walk up on them."
Keene's reward for her hard work is the satisfaction of knowing she's helping eagles go to their nesting areas "fat and sassy," as well as helping rehabilitate the birds that are wounded.
She also enjoys the carloads of kids who stop by to see what's going on.
"I definitely did not do this for all the notoriety," she said. "I put up with it, yeah. But I don't want to be selfish."
The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940, as summarized on the World Wide Web at www.baldeagleinfo. com, "prohibits the take, transport, sale, barter, trade, import and export, and possession of eagles, making it illegal for anyone to collect eagles and eagle parts, nests or eggs without a permit.
"Possession of a feather or other body part is a felony with a fine of up to $10,000 and/or imprisonment, although federally recognized Native Americans are able to possess these emblems, which are traditional in their culture."
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