Flaco, the Owl of Central Park

On the night of February 2, workers at the Central Park Zoo, a 6.5-acre facility in the southeast corner of New York City’s famous garden, started the rounds to check on the animals. When they approached the enclosure that housed a Eurasian eagle-owl, named Flaco, they discovered a gaping hole in the steel-mesh wire, cut by unknown vandals.

Flaco was gone into the Gotham evening.

Flaco the Owl - photo by David Lei

Aside from the general unease about an escaped animal, the zoo was particularly concerned about Flaco because he was 13 years old, had lived his entire life at the zoo, and had never hunted for himself. If an alligator or a lion, for example, flees an establishment, handlers have a decent chance of locating the fauna on the lam and making sure it returns to safety, so the lack of natural experience is a mitigated concern. With birds, however, the job is much tougher.

Flaco did not abscond from the general region, though. Residents quickly spotted him near the Bergdorf Goodman Building on Fifth Avenue, where police unsuccessfully attempted to capture him. The next day, Flaco was back in Central Park, spotted in a tree. Over the subsequent days, he remained there, roosting in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary within the park and even visiting the zoo’s crane enclosure.

Despite surviving the initial post-zoo phase of his life, experts were still concerned. The International Owl Center spotted him and described his flying as “unsteady” and “stressed.” The zoo monitored his whereabouts around the clock. No one had seen Flaco eat, which only exacerbated concerns.

Flaco chills in Central Park - Rhododendrites

Then on February 10, Flaco delighted the zoo, bird experts, and avian tourists when he produced a pellet.

When owls eat, they ingest entire animals. When their bodies have digested all they can, they regurgitate animal parts they can’t handle in a disgusting bolus package. Flaco found food!

The zoo attempted to lure Flaco into special bird traps, called bal-chatris. Using a dead rat as bait, they attempted to snag his talons in the wire contraptions. The delicious rodents did entice Flaco and once, briefly, he became semi-entangled in the trap but managed to escape. The zoo piped in Eurasian eagle-owl sounds near the traps, hoping they might sweeten the pot. Flaco, however, remained elusive.

Flaco nonchalantly considers a trap - photo by David Barrett

With the attempts to capture the owl unfruitful, officials backed off a bit on their efforts when they determined Flaco could nourish himself. After all, New York City is chock full of rodents for an enterprising owl.

However, their concerns did not completely abate. Sure, Flaco had survived a while, but he was still a neophyte outside the zoo. Further, as the name suggests, Eurasian eagle-owls are not exactly native to North America or the Big Apple. These birds, with wingspans that can reach six feet, live in mountainous regions of Europe and Asia. Flaco would need to fly about without smashing into skyscrapers, particularly the many glass windows.

Another issue was his abundant prey. Yes, he could indefinitely feast on rats, but many places in cities use copious amounts of rodenticide in an attempt to curb infestations. Many raptors inside New York City have died of poisoning after eating an infected rat. The Central Park Conservancy maintains they do not use rodenticide, but birds do not recognize human boundaries.

Flaco's adoring fans - photo by Rhododendrites

As if poison and windows weren’t bad enough, Flaco faced another hardship: his fame.

The escaped avian predictably garnered quite a following, from residents and beyond. People flocked to get a peek at this big bird. Though most birdwatchers are cognizant of the well-being of their targets, not all humans are educated or well-intentioned. The birding community in New York commonly debates the practice of sharing locations of birds, especially for owls. Since they are nocturnal and most humans are not, any attention during the day might disturb Flaco’s rest, which could lead to all sorts of issues. It’s not hard to imagine an unscrupulous visitor awakening the bird for a photograph as he sleeps in a tree.

Still, Flaco’s location attracted a lot of attention.

The question arose: what should be done about this famous owl? Many people lobbied for his continuing freedom. If he can fend for himself in the park, why return him to the enclosure? A petition was circulated to emancipate Flaco indefinitely. Others took the opposite view. Though he had remained alive to date, could he continue to do so? Also, how would he impact the “natural” Central Park ecosystem? Owls feed on rats, which is a bonus in the eyes of most New Yorkers, but they also chew on other birds. Would love for Flaco endure if he started to down other birds, some of which might be rare in the city?

When in Rome - photo by David Lei

No proper answer to this discussion likely exists.

Can Flaco become a Central Park example of “charismatic megafauna,” a species with worldwide appeal that symbolizes a region? These types of animals, such as elephants, bald eagles, polar bears, or humpback whales, can sometimes lead to the conservation of other species when we focus on saving the charismatic fauna. Perhaps Flaco could heighten the profile of all animals in Central Park?

To become such a flagship, he’ll need to survive the rigors of the world, which likely includes many humans who don’t care if he continues to live.

The zoo put out a statement about his potential capture:

“We are going to continue monitoring Flaco and his activities and to be prepared to resume recovery efforts if he shows any sign of difficulty or distress. We will issue additional updates if there is a change in the eagle owl’s status or our plan changes.”

For now, Flaco continues to roam the skies of Central Park. He’s not the first famous animal in New York City – for example, in 2018, a mandarin duck, nicknamed Mandarin Patinkin, showed up in Central Park – and he likely won’t be the last. He does have one major advantage over other celebrity animals, though. The scientific name of the Eurasian eagle-owl is a tautonym tough to beat: Bubo bubo.

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