‘It’s a tragic loss’: New Yorkers mourn Flaco, the owl the city took to its heart

February 29, 2024

“He had an adventurous spirit of curiosity about what lay beyond,” said Jacqueline Emery of New York City’s Upper West Side, remembering Flaco with tears in her voice, reports The Guardian.

In his short year of freedom after he escaped from the Central Park Zoo through a hole in the netting of his habitat, the non-native Eurasian eagle owl with piercing orange eyes captivated many New Yorkers—and fans far and wide.

Flaco’s sudden death on Friday, February 23, garnered an outpouring of love and stories of how he brought people closer—creating a special connection with nature in the frenetic concrete jungle.

Over the weekend, fans came together in Manhattan’s famous oasis, Central Park, to remember his legacy at a makeshift memorial around the now-beloved oak tree where he often rested and hunted from. At any time, upwards of 50 people arrived to drop off flowers, cards and printed photos of Flaco.

“It’s a tragic loss,” said David Barrett, who runs a popular social media account, Manhattan Bird Alert. Having spent many hours photographing Flaco, Barrett had come to know the owl as a subject and a companion. To him, Flaco’s hoots were among his favorite characteristics.

“[His hoots] were his way of indicating his territory and possibly connecting with a mate,” said Barrett. “But I think to humans, Flaco’s hoots were comforting. They were melodious and beautiful to hear.”

Flaco managed to thrive in the urban landscape—and freezing winter and scorching summer temperatures—of New York City; perfecting flight and catching rats, having spent his first 12 years in captivity.

He would perch on a branch watching joggers and cyclists in Central Park. After leaving the park in recent weeks he was seen atop residential air conditioning units, even peeking at New Yorkers through their windows, or hunting from the city’s characteristic rooftop water towers.

After escaping from the Central Park zoo last February when a vandal cut open his small enclosure; officials initially attempted to recapture Flaco, but gave up as he showed he was learning to hunt for himself.

“I was lucky enough to see him figure things out,” said David Lei, a wildlife photographer specializing in urban owls. Lei was one of the first to spot Flaco post-escape and capture his image as he made an incongruous sight on a busy Upper East Side street, then began adapting to his new environment.

“Just to see him soar from one 20-story building to the next really spoke to me about how far he’d come since he was an owl on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue,” Lei said.

Flaco played a formative role in Lei’s budding relationship with fellow birder Emery. The pair spent a lot of date nights looking for Flaco.

“When Flaco was down on the Lower East Side, David would pick me up at 10.30 at night, and it was just funny to be heading out owling,” Emery recalled.

Apart from his majestic size and demeanor, Flaco’s inquisitiveness was endearing to many, including Emery. “For me, Flaco’s curiosity was what stood out the most,” Emery said. “Seeing him as an individual, with all of his personality quirks.”

In 2019, the city passed a bill requiring builders to use bird-safe materials in all new construction. In 2021, the city adopted a law that during peak migration months between April and mid-May, city-owned buildings turn their lights off at night—ensuring a safer passage for the many thousands of songbirds, shorebirds and birds of prey that whizz through.

Last May, a New York council member, Francisco Moya, introduced a bill that would expand that rule to commercial buildings. And legislation requiring use of more bird-friendly material in government-owned buildings across the state is advancing in Albany. This week that bill was renamed the Flaco Act—“Feathered Lives Also Count”.

Collisions with windows in particular in New York are all too common,” said Andrew Farnsworth, a researcher at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. In its preliminary report, the Central Park Zoo revealed that Flaco had died of acute traumatic injury, and further tests to determine whether he was exposed to toxins or infectious diseases are pending.

“I would be surprised if the toxicology report didn’t show some kind of rodenticide or perhaps lead or some other toxin,” Farnsworth said. “That said, it’s hard to say whether that was in part responsible for the collision. He was certainly fending well for himself and did not seem to be exhibiting signs of typical poisoning, like really high levels of rodenticide.”

Flaco’s death came less than a week after that of another, less well-known, raptor. On 19 February, a bald eagle nicknamed Rover died after colliding with a vehicle on the highway that runs up the western edge of Manhattan, probably as he swooped on prey.

“We all got to know Rover over the years, and he’d been something of a reliable figure in the area,” Barrett said.

With two cherished avian celebrities dying within a week of each other, New York birders are left holding on to tender memories. “These birds give us beauty,” Barrett said. “They give us a connection with the wild world. It’s amazing to have that in the middle of the city.”

Research contact: @guardian