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Flaco, Escaped Central Park Zoo Owl and Defier of Doubts, Is Dead

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

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

Building residents contacted the Wild Bird Fund, a rescue organization, whose staff members responded quickly, retrieved him and declared 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. He would have turned 14 next month.

Flaco’s year as a free bird began on the evening of Feb. 2, 2023, when someone shredded the mesh on the modest enclosure where he had lived nearly his entire life. The police said in January that no arrests had been made and that the investigation was continuing.

“The vandal who damaged Flaco’s exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death,” the Wildlife Conservation Society said in its statement. “We are still hopeful that the N.Y.P.D., which is investigating the vandalism, will ultimately make an arrest.”

Flaco began attracting a passionate fan base almost as soon as he showed up on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk the night he was set loose. He looked out of place, with police officers standing nearby and Bergdorf Goodman a short flight away.

“Well, that was a hoot,” the New York Police Department’s 19th Precinct posted on social media. “We tried to help this lil wise guy, but he had enough of his growing audience & flew off.”

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’s story. When he showed that he could endure, he became a feathered feel-good figure in troubled times, with bird watchers, ornithologists and everyday New Yorkers following him in person or, in many cases, tracking his exploits online.

But each day outside captivity was risky — even without the hazards presented by an urban environment. Wild Eurasian eagle-owls can live more than 40 years in captivity, but only 20 on average in their natural habitat.

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

For more than a year, though, Flaco proved immune.

He was able to avoid vehicles by sticking largely to rooftops, water towers and other elevated elements of the built environment after leaving Central Park last fall. But the risk that he would be killed in a building strike was great: As many as 230,000 birds a year die in New York City when they hit windows, according to the National Audubon Society.

David Lei, who, with his partner, Jacqueline Emery, has followed and photographed Flaco since his escape, said in an email that he and Ms. Emery were “sad beyond words but holding onto all our fond memories of him.”

Flaco was hatched on March 15, 2010, at the Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, N.C., 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 the snow leopards, snow monkeys and red pandas. Later, he was moved to an enclosure the size of a department store window near the penguin house exit.

He was far from his natural home: Eurasian eagle-owls, known by the scientific name Bubo bubo, are apex predators typically found in much of Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Central Asia. They are among the world’s largest owls, with a wingspan as wide as 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 news release citing Flaco’s “large talons” and “intense stare,” the conservation society said he was “adjusting very well to his new home” and was “a truly awe-inspiring sight.”

But Flaco’s life at the zoo was unremarkable. Only after he left did he begin to inspire true awe.

In his early days of freedom, conservation society employees tried several times to retrieve him. They backed off after he proved that a lifetime of captivity had not dulled his essential nature, and in the face of growing public sentiment that he be allowed to remain out of the zoo.

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

“A major concern for everyone at the beginning 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 is no longer a concern.”

With that worry put aside, the society said it would “rethink our approach” to addressing Flaco’s new circumstances: “We will continue to monitor him, though not as intensely, and look to opportunistically recover him when the situation is right.”

Before long, Flaco had settled into a comfortable life at the park’s north end, perching in favorite trees and snatching up meals.

He left the park’s relative safety around Halloween, embarking 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 turned up on the terraces and air-conditioners that resembled the cliff ledges to which Eurasian eagle-owls are accustomed.

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

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

Mostly he ate rats, although he had lately been seen catching pigeons.

One poignant aspect of Flaco’s Manhattan life was that, as a nonnative species, he was destined never to find a mate. That did not stop him from trying, sometimes hooting into the post-midnight darkness for hours to establish his territory and declare his interest in breeding.

Flaco’s last reported hoots 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 account on social media.

On Friday, Flaco was found just a few blocks away.

Catrin Einhorn contributed reporting.

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