An owl named Flaco is on the loose in Central Park, with vandals to blame

A Eurasian eagle owl named Flaco was the subject of an intense rescue effort on Friday night after escaping following vandals damaging its enclosure at the Central Park Zoo the previous night, authorities said. parks and zoo officials.

As night fell and temperatures plummeted, a small crowd of bird watchers equipped with binoculars, pro-grade cameras and tripods gathered on a path in the southeast corner of the park. They tried to get a look at the orange-and-black-striped bird of prey as zoo workers and park rangers moved through the trees to its perch on a high branch.

“Patience is the key,” said a zoo employee.

The rescue drama unfolded nearly 24 hours after zoo workers discovered Flaco was missing and the stainless steel mesh around his enclosure had been cut, zoo officials said. At that time, the zoo said in a statement, “a team was mobilized to search for the bird.”

Passers-by and police spotted the owl on Fifth Avenue, but quickly flew away. He was later seen in a tree near 59th Street, where he spent the night as zoo workers watched him from the ground below.

By sunrise, the zoo said, Flaco had returned to Central Park, where workers had maintained “eye contact” with him throughout Friday. At dusk, he stayed out of reach. The nearby Hallett Nature Sanctuary has been closed to the public. It was not immediately clear how his flight to freedom would end.

Flaco arrived at the zoo in 2010, moving into its Temperate Territory section, where other occupants included snow leopards, snow monkeys and red pandas.

Eurasian eagle-owls are among the largest owls and have a wingspan of up to 79 inches, according to zoo information. Distinctive orange-eyed nocturnal birds, they are found across much of Europe and Asia and parts of North Africa, where, according to the Peregrine Fund, a conservation group, they live in a variety of woodland habitats. Common in areas with rocky outcrops and cliffs, they also live in open habitats that have few trees.

In the wild, the Eurasian eagle-owl, or bubo bubo, hunts at dusk, targeting rodents, rabbits and large game birds, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Owls are also known to live in city parks and one once showed up at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium in Finland, according to the Peregrine Fund.

Molly Eustis, 42, a stage manager who lives in Queens, was among those who braved the cold Friday afternoon to see the research for herself. She said she developed a love for owls during the days of Barry the Barred Owl, a wild bird that appeared in Central Park during the pandemic. Barry attracted many admirers before she was killed in a collision with a Central Park Conservancy maintenance vehicle in 2021.

“I wanted to see it and take a picture,” Ms Eustis said of Flaco. “You don’t see them much in the wild.”

But she worried about his ability to survive on his own after all his years at the zoo, and as temperatures plummeted into single digits with high winds.

“A captive-bred owl won’t know how to hunt, won’t really know how to navigate the world the way a wild animal would,” she said.

David Barrett, a 59-year-old investor who lives on the Upper East Side and runs the popular Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter account, had the same fear.

On Friday, Mr Barrett snapped a photo of Flaco perched on a bare branch which he estimated was at least 60ft above the ground. In the wild, he says, eagle owls prefer pines and other conifers with thick, dense leaves that can protect them from wind and predators.

“I was surprised to see the owl perch so high on a cold, windy day,” Barrett said.

He added that although the eagle owl can be found in parts of Eurasia that can get quite cold, Flaco may have lost its ability to hunt for food after being in captivity for so long.

“This bird is in peril because it almost certainly cannot survive on its own,” he said.

Mr Barrett speculated that zoo workers would try to entice the owl with its favorite foods offered by its regular handler.

Mr Barrett compared Flaco to the Mandarin duck which captured worldwide attention and became known as the ‘hot duck’ after it appeared in Central Park in 2018. People thought the animal had escaped from the zoo, but that was not the case. The question of how he ended up in the park contributed to his mystique.

Although Flaco came from the zoo, he, like the mandarin duck, was not native to the area, making it an equally unusual sight for people who may have seen him.

“It’s not a bird you’ll ever see flying naturally in the United States or North America,” Barrett said.

The Central Park Zoo is at least the second urban zoo to recently suffer an act of vandalism. A clouded leopard escaped through a hole in its enclosure at the Dallas Zoo last month that officials say had been deliberately cut, one of many unusual episodes at the zoo in recent weeks.

An investigation into who vandalized the Flaco enclosure was continuing, Central Park Zoo officials said.


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