All eyes are on New York Metropolis’s newest avian movie star: Flaco the Owl. In February, the Eurasian Eagle-Owl, a big species native to Europe and Asia, escaped his enclosure within the Central Park Zoo after an act of vandalism. Information of his escape shortly unfold, and nearly instantly Flaco grew to become a star of the native birding scene, attracting crowds of birders wherever he has been noticed. Regardless of preliminary considerations that he wouldn’t be capable of feed himself, the owl has been looking and dwelling alongside native wildlife in Manhattan’s Central Park for greater than a month. This success has led a cohort of Flaco followers to argue that he needs to be allowed to proceed to dwell freely.
However in an city setting, Flaco, who beforehand spent his total life in captivity, faces life-threatening dangers—from rat poison in his weight-reduction plan to collisions with autos or buildings. He additionally might probably hurt different wildlife within the park by preying on native birds, which he far outsizes. Many conservationists and raptor consultants argue it’s higher for him and his environment if he returns to his “dwelling” within the zoo.
The saga began on February 2 at 8:30 p.m., when Central Park Zoo staffers discovered Flaco lacking from his enclosure, which is “the scale of a bus cease,” Gothamist reported. Vandals had minimize a gap within the enclosure’s stainless-steel mesh massive sufficient for Flaco to slide out, in response to a press release from the zoo, which is run by the Bronx-based nonprofit Wildlife Conservation Society. The culprits haven’t been recognized as of March 6, the police say.
Later that night, passersby noticed Flaco exploring Manhattan’s busy Higher East Facet neighborhood, which is subsequent to his dwelling of 13 years. He spent a while on the sidewalk close to the Sherry-Netherland Lodge on fifth Avenue, about 380 yards from the zoo, earlier than flying south, in response to the NYPD’s nineteenth Precinct. Onlookers then situated him perched on a tree close to the luxurious division retailer Bergdorf Goodman earlier than he flew again to Central Park. Since then, Flaco has spent most of his time in and across the park, hopping from one tree to a different in forested areas, such because the Hallett Sanctuary at its south finish and close to the Loch, a slender waterway in its northern area.
It didn’t take lengthy for Flaco to turn out to be an area attraction. He’s an unmistakably stunning animal, with pumpkin-orange eyes and feathery ear tufts. He’s most famous, nonetheless, for his immense measurement: The Eurasian Eagle-Owl is taken into account the world’s second largest owl after Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. The wingspan of a male like Flaco can attain as much as six toes—a foot and and a half greater than the Nice Horned Owl, a frequent inhabitant of Central Park. As such, Flaco has attracted photographers and admirers from across the metropolis in addition to a throng of followers following alongside on social media.
Flaco has eluded any try and be captured to date. Zoo employees have baited cages and performed audio recordings of Eurasian Eagle-Owl calls to lure him into traps—however he has proven no curiosity. At first, staffers had been involved that Flaco, who they’ve cared for nearly his total life, wouldn’t be capable of hunt for himself. Within the species’s native habitat in Europe and Asia, Eurasian Eagle-Owls dwell removed from human settlements, amid patches of woodland or inaccessible cliffs. Now he’s in the course of a significant metropolitan space.
However these fears had been swiftly put to relaxation. On February 12 the zoo, in a written replace on their web site, shared that they noticed Flaco “efficiently looking, catching, and consuming prey.” From his pellets—regurgitated stays of undigested prey reminiscent of bones and fur—zookeepers concluded that he had began feeding on Central Park’s plentiful rats.
This growth fueled a vocal contingent on social media that started urging the zoo to let Flaco stay unfastened within the park. A petition, titled “Free Flaco, the Central Park Zoo Owl,” pushed zookeepers to cease all restoration efforts. If they do recapture him, the petitioners say he needs to be moved to a sanctuary with extra room. “If Flaco is captured, he’ll return to a TINY, unhappy trying excuse for an owl habitat. He deserves higher,” petitioner Nicole Barrantes wrote. The petition has been signed by greater than 1,500 individuals as of March 6.
However ecologists discover that stance short-sighted. Regardless of Flaco’s current successes looking on his personal, his new meals supply is potenitally poisonous. To handle its rampant rat drawback, New York Metropolis businesses utilized roughly 62,500 kilos of rat poison in 2021 alone, in response to the newest knowledge from the New York Metropolis Division of Well being. When predators reminiscent of owls and hawks eat rats, they accumulate the rodenticide of their system. Feeding on rats with excessive poison ranges can lead to loss of life and a lack of coordination. Even a small quantity of rodenticide is sufficient to forestall a fowl’s blood from clotting, placing the animals at excessive danger of bleeding to loss of life if they’re wounded. Rodenticides have turn out to be a menace to birds in lots of components of the nation, particularly in city settings like New York.
“Each meal he takes is a little bit of a danger,” says ornithologist Scott Weidensaul, who research Snowy Owls with the scientific group Undertaking SNOWstorm. “Why danger his life on the market with this recreation of Russian Roulette with probably poisoned rodents?”
These fears are justified. When a special Central Park owl movie star was killed in 2021, consultants suspected rodenticides performed a job. Barry, a feminine Barred Owl who lived within the park for a few yr, died after a collision with a park administration van. A necropsy by New York State’s Division of Environmental Conservation later discovered a probably deadly stage of rodenticide inside Barry’s system, presumably affecting her capacity to avert the automobile. Luckily, the Central Park Conservancy has suspended using all rodenticide from February via August—the interval when birds of prey nest within the park—however the danger of consuming contaminated rats from exterior the park stays.
Poisonous rats are not the one hazard Flaco would possibly encounter. He’s now dwelling and flying in a bustling city setting with many autos and buildings he can collide with—vastly completely different environment from the eagle-owl’s native habitat. Window collisions are one of many metropolis’s prime causes of fowl mortality, yearly killing 90,000 to 230,000 birds, together with raptors like owls, in response to NYC Audubon.
In the meantime, a automobile collision is how one other fugitive Eurasian Eagle-Owl is believed to have died. In October 2021, after two weeks dwelling on her personal in woodlands close to the Minnesota Zoo, Gladys was discovered on the facet of the street. She died from accidents presumably sustained in a street accident.
The danger of Flaco assembly his destiny from these urban-specific dangers are getting greater as birders spot him flying farther from the zoo, although nonetheless throughout the park. As of March 6, Flaco was final seen within the northern a part of Central Park, resting over a waterfall at The Loch. A number of days prior, native birders noticed him hanging round in a development web site at Harlem Meer, a lake in Central Park’s northeast nook. “If Flaco begins leaving the park and exploring extra into town, there are dangers in all places,” says Dustin Partridge, NYC Audubon director of conservation and science.
A less-discussed concern is how Flaco’s freedom impacts Central Park’s native birds and wildlife. Flaco is now competing with different birds for meals and habitat, says avian ecologist Katherine Gura from Teton Raptor Heart. And Weidensaul, for his half, is fearful that Flaco would possibly prey on native birds, together with smaller owls just like the Nice Horned Owl and Jap Screech-Owl.
There’s additionally the uncommon risk of crossbreeding. Beth Watne, the chief director of wildlife rehab middle Montana Wild Wings, says Flaco might probably attempt to mate with a Nice Horned Owl, North America’s closest relative of Eurasian Eagle-Owls. Offspring of such a pairing would possibly wrestle to hunt and survive within the wild. “You wish to do every thing you’ll be able to to forestall that sort of crossbreeding in nature,” she says.
None of those arguments are prone to sway Flaco’s most passionate proponents, although. Bioethicist Lisa Moses from Harvard Medical College says she will perceive why persons are cheering on the owl, eager to see him dwell free versus being restricted to an enclosure—and he or she even feels herself pulled on this route. However she additionally thinks the discourse on Flaco’s destiny ought to think about the fowl’s particular person welfare, together with the environmental hazards he now faces. “Is it higher for him to have a brief life, and a life the place he’s dwelling the best way he chooses to dwell, or a lengthy, protected life in captivity?” she asks. “Everybody has to determine for themselves what they assume is a much bigger determinant of high quality of life.”
Zoo staffers would favor Flaco be secure in his enclosure. Nonetheless, for now they’ve given up on catching him after the collection of failed makes an attempt, the final on February 16. “We’re going to proceed monitoring Flaco and his actions and to be ready to renew restoration efforts if he exhibits any signal of problem or misery,” the zoo wrote in a press release on February 17. Zoo employees didn’t reply to questions on an up to date timeline. The New York Metropolis Division of Parks and Recreation, the steward of town’s public parks together with Central Park, additionally didn’t reply to questions on Flaco’s future.
Whereas Weidensaul agrees that Flaco needs to be returned dwelling, he, too, understands the choice perspective—that Flaco would possibly dwell a fuller life flying throughout Central Park somewhat than being cooped up together with his meals offered. If Flaco had escaped from a zoo in Spain, close to his native habitat, Weidensaul says he would be extra supportive of letting him stay free. However as it’s, he says, New York isn’t any place for a Eurasian Eagle-Owl. “The most effective factor for him, long-term, despite the fact that it won’t be as full or enriching as life may very well be for him, is to be again in captivity.”