Flaco, the owl that escaped from the Central Park Zoo and defies doubt, is dead


Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl whose escape from the Central Park Zoo and subsequent loose life in Manhattan captured the public’s attention, died Friday night after apparently crashing into a building on the Upper West Side, authorities said.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the zoo, said in a statement that Flaco had been found on the ground after crashing into a building on West 89th Street.

Residents of the building contacted Wild Bird Fund, a rescue organization, whose staff responded quickly, recovered him and pronounced him dead a short time later, the society said.

Zoo employees took him to the Bronx Zoo, where a necropsy will be performed to determine the cause of death. Next month he would have turned 14 years old.

Flaco’s year as a free bird began on the afternoon of February 2, 2023, when someone destroyed the mesh of the modest enclosure where he had lived almost his entire life. Police said in January that no arrests had been made and the investigation was continuing.

“The vandal who damaged Flaco’s exhibit endangered the bird’s safety and is ultimately responsible for its death,” the Wildlife Conservation Society said in its statement. “We are still hopeful that the NYPD, who is investigating the vandalism, will eventually make an arrest.”

El Flaco began attracting a passionate fan base almost as soon as he appeared on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk the night he was released. He seemed out of place, with police officers nearby and Bergdorf Goodman a short flight away.

“Well that was hilarious,” the NYPD’s 19th District posted on social media. “We tried to help this little sage, but he had had enough of his growing audience and flew away.”

Soon, Flaco had settled in Central Park.

As the days passed and he remained free, the question of whether he could survive outside the zoo after a lifetime there turned his plight into an underdog story. When he proved he could hang on, he became a feathered figure of comfort in tough times, with birders, ornithologists and ordinary New Yorkers following him in person or, in many cases, following his online exploits. .

But every day outside captivity was risky, even without the dangers that an urban environment presents. Wild eagle owls can live more than 40 years in captivity, but only 20 on average in the wild.

Hitting a building, especially a window, was one of several lethal threats he faced. Others included death from rodenticide poisoning in the rats she ate and a fatal collision with a vehicle.

However, for more than a year, Flaco proved to be immune.

He was able to avoid vehicles by largely sticking to rooftops, water towers and other elevated elements of the built environment after leaving Central Park last fall. But the risk of it dying in a construction strike was great: Up to 230,000 birds a year die in New York City when they fly into windows, according to the National Audubon Society.

David Lei, who, along with his partner, Jacqueline Emery, has followed and photographed Flaco since his escape, said in an email that he and Emery were “saddened beyond words, but held all our good memories of him.” .

Flaco was born on March 15, 2010, at the Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, North Carolina, according to Association of Zoos and Aquariums records.

He arrived at the Central Park Zoo less than two months later. He was initially placed with snow leopards, snow monkeys, and red pandas. He was later moved to an enclosure the size of a department store window near the exit of the penguin house.

It was far from its natural home: the eagle owl, known by the scientific name Bubo bubo, is an apex predator typically found across much of Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Central Asia. They are among the largest owls in the world, with a wingspan of up to six feet. They thrive in mountains and other rocky areas near forests, swooping down at night to hunt rodents, rabbits, and other prey.

In a November 2010 press release, citing Flaco’s “large claws” and “intense gaze,” the conservation society said it was “adjusting very well to its new home” and was “a truly impressive sight.” .

But Flaco’s life at the zoo was nothing special. Only after his departure did she begin to inspire true awe.

In his first days of freedom, employees of the conservation society tried several times to recover him. They backed down after he demonstrated that a lifetime of captivity had not dulled his essential nature, and in the face of growing public sentiment that he should be allowed to remain outside the zoo.

A turning point came when he was seen devouring a rat and, later, coughing up an indigestible pellet of skin and bones.

“At first, a big concern for everyone was whether Flaco would be able to hunt and eat,” the conservation society said in a statement 10 days after his departure from the zoo. “That’s no longer a concern.”

That concern aside, the society said it would “rethink our approach” to addressing Flaco’s new circumstances: “We will continue to monitor him, although not as intensely, and seek to recover him opportunistically when the situation is right.”

Before long, Skinny had settled into a comfortable life at the north end of the park, perching in his favorite trees and eating food.

He left the relative safety of the park around Halloween and embarked on a tour of Manhattan that took him to the East Village, the Lower East Side and the Upper East Side, delighting those he encountered when he appeared on the terraces and air conditioners that looked like the cliffs that eagle owls are used to.

By December, Flaco had largely settled on the Upper West Side, from the ’70s to the ’90s and from Central Park West to Riverside Drive, returning to certain buildings repeatedly.

He usually spent his days sleeping on patio fire escapes, where it was warmer and protected from the wind. At dusk he would fly out in search of prey.

It fed mainly on rats, although lately it had been seen hunting pigeons.

A poignant aspect of Flaco’s life in Manhattan was that, as a non-native species, he was destined to never find a mate. That didn’t stop her from trying, sometimes hooting in the post-midnight darkness for hours, to establish his territory and declare his interest in breeding.

Flaco’s last reported screams were heard from a water tower on West 86th Street east of Columbus Avenue at 3 a.m. last Sunday, according to David Barrett’s Manhattan Bird Alert social media account.

On Friday, Flaco was found a few blocks away.

Catrin Einhorn contributed reports.

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