Once upon a time, there was an owl named Flaco who lived in a small zoo in the middle of a big park in America’s largest city. His story was a cliffhanger about escape and freedom and resilience.
As CNN, The Guardian and The Daily Mail joined New York-based media in recounting Flaco’s adventures, concern about the owl who escaped from the Central Park Zoo spread beyond his hometown. New Yorkers and tourists followed his story with a mixture of anxiety and hope — worried that after a lifetime in captivity, the owl wouldn’t know how to feed himself or keep himself safe.
Early headlines like “Central Park Zoo Owl Still on the Loose” suggested that Flaco’s escape was a variation on the plot of the animated movie “Madagascar,” in which a discontented zebra abandons the comforts of the Central Park Zoo and goes on the lam. But the latest chapter in the story of Flaco — who was born in captivity and made “his public debut” at the zoo in 2010 — began with a violent act that endangered his life.
When a vandal cut the wire mesh on his enclosure on Feb. 2, the only world Flaco knew was forcibly ruptured — a trauma that could have proven fatal. From his micro-apartment (furnished only with some tree branches, fake rocks and a painted mural of a mountain landscape), Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl was suddenly free in Central Park and exposed to all the real-life perils and thrills of Gotham.
It was a kind of existential moment for the owl: his species is native to much of Europe and Asia, but not North America, and there he suddenly was, maybe the only one of his kind in the wild on the entire continent. In his first hours and days outside the zoo, Flaco “looked stressed,” said Karla Bloem, executive director of the International Owl Center. Even his flying was a little wobbly at first, she suggested; like “someone who’s been living in their living room” for years, it took a while “to build up a little muscle and strength.”
Never before had the owl seen such wide open spaces. Never before had he been harassed by squirrels, and noisy blue jays and streetwise crows. It was amazing to watch Flaco learn, said Molly Eustis, a stage manager and owl lover, and “think ‘wow this is probably the first time in his life he’s been that high up in a tree!’ and to think how that must feel for him. Or the first time he caught a rat! Or felt the rain falling all around him.”
Despite the stereotype of owls as scholarly types, experts say they tend to be patient, practical-minded creatures of habit. Even so, owls throughout history have exerted a magnetic hold over our imaginations. Perhaps no other creature has been invested with such contradictory meanings across so many different cultures — as a protective spirit, a totem of erudition and an omen of death.
Centuries before Hedwig became Harry Potter’s loyal sidekick, the owl was known as a companion to Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare — possibly because of the bird’s phenomenal vision and skill as a hunter. In his 20th century adaptation of the King Arthur legend, T.H. White gave the future king’s tutor, the magician Merlyn, a companion named Archimedes — a talking owl who teaches the young Arthur how to fly.
Owls are no less popular characters in folk tales and children’s books — like Owl in “Winnie-the-Pooh,” who spells his name “Wol” and likes to tell family stories.
In part, it’s owls’ sense of mystery, their nocturnal nature and elusiveness that account for their power to captivate. Or, as Deborah Jaffe, a birder and lifelong New Yorker, observes: “Owls have always been the hardest birds to see, which makes them the most thrilling types of birds to see.”
In part, it’s their expressive eyes and almost human countenance. Bella Hatkoff, an artist who has volunteered at the Wild Bird Fund, points out that owls are almost perfect illustrations of what the zoologist Konrad Lorenz called “baby schema” — a theory that the features of a human infant (round head, big eyes, roundish body) tend to trigger protective emotions. Animals like panda bears and kittens also match this blueprint for “cuteness,” as do characters like Pikachu and Baby Yoda.
A charming owl was drawn some 30,000 years ago in the Chauvet Cave in southern France — with its expressive little ear tufts, it bears a remarkable resemblance to Flaco. And there are dozens of drawings, ceramics and sculptures of owls created by Pablo Picasso — all inspired by a little owl with an injured talon that he and his partner Françoise Gilot rescued in 1946. Picasso identified with the owl’s interrogatory gaze, and he later created a self-portrait of himself as an owl — with his own piercing eyes staring out from a line drawing of the bird.
Many New Yorkers, especially those confined to small apartments during Covid, identified with Flaco’s story. David Barrett, who runs the popular Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert — which many people have relied upon to track Flaco’s journey — noted that people who arrive in New York “need to learn new skills quickly if they want to survive, and they must adapt to an environment unlike the one from which they came. In Flaco’s success they see their own — or inspiration to continue working toward their own.”
All these were reasons that many people felt so protective of the owl: a member of a species renowned for its skills as a predator, and yet in Flaco’s case, an innocent of sorts, with no experience fending for himself. His admirers worried that he could crash into a skyscraper window, run afoul of the Central Park coyote, or get hit by a car, a fate met by Barry the Barred Owl in the summer of 2021. The biggest worry during his first days of freedom was that he wouldn’t know how to hunt and could starve to death — after all, he’d dined for a decade on deliveries of what one zoo associate described as Whole Foods-quality dead mice and rats.
But then Flaco defied everyone’s expectations. As longtime bird watcher Stella Hamilton pointed out, he was “like a fledgling” mastering the art of surviving, but a fledgling who compressed weeks of learning into a couple days. Despite a lifetime in captivity, the owl had somehow “remained wild inside.”
The photographer David Lei saw Flaco on his first night of freedom, looking somewhat dazed and lost near the Plaza Hotel, and he has chronicled the owl’s progress since. He watched Flaco’s first tentative hops from one tree to another. And he witnessed Flaco not only master the art of flight but also become an increasingly confident hunter.
Eurasian eagle-owls are one of the world’s largest owls. And with his nearly six foot wingspan, Flaco thrilled observers at flyout every night: a feline silhouette crouched on a tree limb, suddenly soaring into the nighttime sky, like a giant pterodactyl taking wing across the park. Within a week, he was becoming the apex predator he was born to be, proudly showing off the rats he’d killed with his bare talons.
There were still perils — like eating rats that have ingested rat poison. But Flaco’s new proficiency at hunting began to change people’s thinking about his future — rooting not for his safe return to the zoo, but for a new life of freedom.
In the Netherlands, where Eurasian eagle-owls have been kept as pets, some have escaped. And according to Marjon Savelsberg, an owl researcher there, a lot of those birds “return to the wild and learn, just like Flaco, how to survive. And some even nest and raise children with wild Eurasian eagle-owls.”
When Flaco was living at the zoo, he had been described by one longtime visitor as a grumpy and slightly pudgy owl — much like those of us stuck at home during the pandemic. But after only two weeks in Central Park, he had become an athletic and handsome prince, enthusiastically hooting his presence to claim his place in the city or find a possible mate.
After two weeks of freedom, Flaco couldn’t be found in any of his favorite spots. When he was discovered, a day later, some two miles north in the park, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t suffered the fate of Barry, or moved to the suburbs — he’d simply found a slightly wilder place to hang out in the 843-acre park.
Flaco’s eagle-owl relatives have adapted, on other continents, to living in forests and on steppes, mountains, farmlands and in cities — one Eurasian eagle-owl even raised three owlets on the windowsill of an apartment building in a Belgian city. And much the way that Barry had brought joy to New York during the darkest days of Covid, so Flaco gave a weary city still trying to come back from the pandemic a heartening sense of resilience.
Michiko Kakutani is the author of the book “Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Re-Read.” Follow her on Twitter: @michikokakutani and on Instagram: @michi_kakutani