Flaco, the Famous Owl That Escaped the Central Park Zoo, Dies After Hitting a Building

The Eurasian eagle-owl had been living free in New York City after someone cut the wires on his zoo cage last year

An owl sitting in a tree
Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl, sits in a tree in Central Park. The bird roosted and hunted in the park during the year following his escape, becoming popular with local birders, before his death on February 23. Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl that escaped from the Central Park Zoo last February and captured the hearts and minds of New Yorkers for the past year, has died after colliding with a Manhattan building, the zoo said in a statement on Friday.

People in the Upper West Side building reported the fallen owl to the Wild Bird Fund, a New York City wildlife rehabilitation and education center, which retrieved the animal and declared him dead, according to the zoo. A surgical examination of Flaco’s body indicated that he had died from an “acute traumatic injury.”

Fans of the bird, who was regularly spotted in the city since his escape, mourned his death on social media. People have left flowers and pictures of Flaco at a memorial at the base of a tree he frequented in Central Park.

“Flaco defied the odds and made quite a life for himself in the city over the past year. Along the way he came to mean so much to so many, including me,” wildlife observer David Lei posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Everyone was connected with that bird, and he was a fabulous ambassador. Just inspiring with his own life,” Rita McMahon, director of the Wild Bird Fund, tells NPR’s Juliana Kim.

Flaco rose to fame when he escaped the zoo on February 2 last year, after someone vandalized his exhibit and cut the cage’s stainless steel mesh.

“The vandal who damaged Flaco’s exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death,” the zoo wrote in its statement.

Flaco was born in 2010 at a bird sanctuary in North Carolina and moved to the Central Park Zoo when he was less than a year old, according to Ginger Adams Otis of the Wall Street Journal.

Eurasian eagle-owls are found across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. They are among the world’s largest owls, weighing between three and nine pounds with wings that can spread six feet across. They typically live 10 to 20 years in the wild and up to 60 years in captivity.

After Flaco escaped, zoo staff tried to recover the owl. The bird was spotted near the zoo that evening, and the zoo team stayed with him throughout the night. They continued to monitor the bird and attempted to recapture him over the next several weeks.

At first, the team worried that Flaco would not be able to hunt and eat on his own. But his flight skills improved quickly, and people saw him successfully hunting, catching and eating prey.

Zoo staff tried to lure the owl with familiar foods and recordings of eagle-owl calls, but his hunting success made it more difficult to entice him. Meanwhile, birders gathered to catch a glimpse of the famed owl. He was spotted on water towers, fire escapes and a Central Park bench, according to the Washington Post’s Helier Cheung.

While some people wanted Flaco to live freely in the park, the zoo wanted to return him to his exhibit for a number of reasons, including risks Flaco faced from potentially eating poisoned rats and colliding with buildings or vehicles, as well as the threat the raptor posed to smaller native birds, Kharishar Kahfi wrote for Audubon magazine last March.

“We are going to continue monitoring Flaco and his activities and to be prepared to resume recovery efforts if he shows any sign of difficulty or distress,” the zoo wrote in a statement two weeks after the owl’s escape.

According to NYC Audubon research, collisions with building glass kill between 90,000 and 230,000 migrating birds in New York City each year. The same fate now seems to have befallen Flaco.

The necropsy, performed at the Bronx Zoo, found “substantial hemorrhage under the sternum and in the back of the body cavity around the liver,” per the Central Park Zoo’s statement. “There also was a small amount of bleeding behind the left eye, but otherwise there was no evidence of head trauma. No bone fractures were found.”

When Flaco died, he weighed 4.1 pounds, only 0.1 pounds less than when he was last weighed at the zoo, indicating his body was in good condition.

In the coming weeks, experts will try to determine whether any health factors may have contributed to his collision and death, such as exposure to rat poison or other toxins, as well as whether he had any diseases, including West Nile virus and bird flu.

Locals reported that they hadn’t heard Flaco’s nighttime calls on New York City’s Upper West Side in the days prior to his death, speculating that he might have been ill, writes Cedar Attanasio of the Associated Press.

On Monday, New York lawmakers announced a renewed push for two bird-friendly pieces of legislation that would reduce light pollution and require new buildings to use designs, especially in windows, that are shown to decrease collisions. The latter, officially called the Bird Safe Buildings Act, will be renamed the Flaco Act.

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