Evenings in the Park with Flaco
In the birding community, the moment an owl embarks upon its day is known as “flyout.” Flyout is a devout time, akin to “wheels up” in the Presidential schedule. Observers wait for hours with heavy cameras; the owl scratches and readies itself. Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl, escaped from the Central Park Zoo, three weeks ago
In the birding community, the moment an owl embarks upon its day is known as “flyout.” Flyout is a devout time, akin to “wheels up” in the Presidential schedule. Observers wait for hours with heavy cameras; the owl scratches and readies itself. Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl, escaped from the Central Park Zoo, three weeks ago, after someone vandalized the steel mesh of his enclosure. (The zoo has called it a “a deliberate criminal act.”) Ever since, he has been flying out from new locations within the Park—the east side, the west side, Sheep Meadow, the North Woods—at around 5 or 5:3src P.M. There is always a crowd on hand, in heavy parkas, toting tripods, thermal binoculars, and truly gigantic lenses.
“I’ve had a few celebrity birds—the mandarin duck was the first,” David Barrett, who runs the Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert, told me the other day. We were watching Flaco perch on a low branch near the Naumburg Bandshell, the spot just off the Mall where, in warmer months, musicians play free concerts. The eagle-owl was trying to sleep; a dozen people were taking photos and watching respectfully. Flaco is enormous and distinctive, with a strong, tufted brow, orange eyes, and bright brown-and-white feathers that blend and striate together. That morning, he’d been chased by blue jays near the Bethesda Fountain. “Is this the escaped owl?” a passerby asked. “He’s not escaped,” a birder named Valerie Hartman explained. “He was let loose.” Barrett said, “He is looking right at us.” Flaco’s bushy eyes rose as if he had heard.
The eagle-owl is arguably the world’s largest owl species. (The Blakiston’s fish owl is slightly heavier but shorter; the great gray owl is slightly longer, but lighter.) Flaco, as a male, is smaller than a female, but a male’s wingspan can still stretch approximately six feet across. In the wild, eagle-owls range from the coast of Portugal to the Russian Far East. Flaco, who came to the zoo at less than a year old and spent the next twelve years in captivity, had lived on the edge of a building called Penguins and Sea Birds, across the road from a 4-D theatre.
“I’ve been following this owl from the zoo for the last eleven years,” Hartman told me. Her parents have their names on benches nearby. She showed me a picture of Flaco in a room with fake rocks and four or five branches, a curve of bright blue wall with wallpaper of some far-off misty mountain. “I’ve always had a kind of pang that I felt badly that he was in this,” she said. In the zoo’s online lineup of “our animals,” Flaco did not crack the Top Ten.
The closest the zoo has come to recapturing him was shortly after his escape, when staff placed a small cage on the Heckscher Ballfields. Inside was a white lab rat; on the roof were tangled curls of thin, coiled plastic. This is what’s known as a bal-chatri trap. “It’s like a noose,” Anke Frohlich, a birder who watched it all go down, said. “Monofilament loops,” Barrett added. “The idea is that the loops will catch the owl’s foot and then hold it in.” The attempt was made at night, after flyout. The ball field was dark; zoo staff were waiting outside the perimeter with nets. “She got her left talon stuck in one of the wires,” Frohlich said. (“I say ‘she,’ because I’m German and in German owl is ‘she,’ a female,” Frohlich explained. “But it’s a ‘him.’ It’s a Flaco.”) But zoo staff were too slow. “It’s an absolute miracle that she got out,” Frohlich said.
On February 12th, the zoo issued a statement. Flaco, after ten days in the Park, had learned how to hunt. This was an extraordinary development, and explained his relative lack of interest in stunned lab rats. Raptors raised in captivity generally cannot hunt, because they have to learn from a parent. But Flaco was feasting. Observers saw him regurgitate some bones and fur by the Heckscher Playground.
“They won’t be able to catch him now, will they?” a birder named Hila Paldi asked at the band shell. “It’s going to be harder and harder,” Barrett said. “Flaco is developing greater flying endurance, ranging over a wider part of the Park.” A few minutes later, Alexandra Horowitz, an animal-cognition researcher who is the head of Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab, emerged from the crowd. She had been biking through the Park and detoured to say hello to Barrett. “Professor!” Barrett said. They had never met in person, but Horowitz knew where he’d be. “It’s easy to find you,” she said. “You just have to find the owl.” Horowitz explained that she used to be a docent at the zoo, and had always seen a tension between the caged wilderness within it and the freedom just outside. Flaco, she said, had come to represent that.
In its statement, the zoo announced that it would have to “rethink” its approach to Flaco, given his newfound hunting abilities. “We will continue to monitor him, though not as intensely, and look to opportunistically recover him when the situation is right,” the statement explained. “I would say, why should he be captured?” Horowitz asked. Flaco sat impassively above us. “People who work in zoos are interested in the welfare of the animals. If he’s doing great here . . . ”
Flaco spent Valentine’s Day in a wooded part of the Park known as the Ramble, near the usual spot of a great horned owl named Geraldine, who has been living in Central Park since January, 2src22—longer than any other owl on record, to Barrett’s knowledge. It’s unclear whether they met that night. (Some hooting was heard.) Before Geraldine, there was a female barred owl named Barry, who stayed for ten months, until she was hit by a Central Park Conservancy truck. (Toxicology reports found high levels of rat poison in her blood, likely from eating rats, which may have weakened her ability to elude the car.) Another great horned owl visited last year, a “handsome owl that we thought was a male,” Barrett told me. He was known only as the Visiting Great Horned Owl.
“This park is magic,” Hartman said. She saw a kind of power in the owl’s regular routine. “It’s just so humbling because they fly out when they’re ready, they hunt when they’re ready,” she said. “And they kind of show you—you’re not in charge, they are.”
On Thursday, a rumor spread among the birders. “We are hearing that the zoo team may try to capture Flaco tonight by luring him to a cage with a female Eurasian Eagle-Owl in it,” Barrett tweeted from the Manhattan Bird Alert account. After sundown, I found Barrett and the birders on the edge of the lake, heading south. “I was hearing strong hooting by Naumburg Bandshell,” he told me. “I could hear the distinct sound of another Eurasian eagle-owl.” But the consensus was that this other owl was merely a recording, not an actual bird. “It sounded a little tinny to me,” Frohlich said.
The recorded-owl-voice maneuver generated a backlash among the birders. They tried to keep eyes on Flaco on what they believed could be his last night of freedom. A birder named Molly Eustis said she’d seen a guy walking around “with a cage of rats on his back.” Flaco had been heard hooting back, multiple times, to the recorded voice. “They’re creating tons of stress for this owl,” a birder who went by J.P. said. She later tweeted, in anger, “They’re deceiving the owl.”
A birder named Jacqueline texted Eustis that she had spotted Flaco in the Sheep Meadow, where hooting had been heard earlier that night. When we arrived, zoo staff were carrying a large net, folded into a semicircle, which looked like a portable soccer goal, out of the meadow and into a line of waiting cars. It appeared owl-less. Approached for comment, zoo staff shook their heads and kept walking. “We can’t answer anything, I’m sorry,” one said. They returned multiple times that night to try again; J.P. posted a photo of the scene on Twitter. “I just told them the world is watching,” she wrote.
On Friday night, the zoo threw in the towel: they would pause efforts to “recover” Flaco, for now. “As we noted previously, efforts at recovering the bird have proven more difficult,” they explained. “Great news,” Barrett tweeted. On Saturday, Flaco sat in an elm tree and hooted. On Sunday, more than a hundred people watched him fly out. ♦