Flaco, Central Park Zoo Owl, Tastes Freedom and Isn’t Rushing to Return

At around 10:30 Thursday morning, a half-dozen young women from Australia climbed a large rock outcropping near Central Park’s south end and began to snap pictures of one another with the skyscrapers of Billionaires’ Row as their backdrop.

Like virtually everyone passing through the area in the February chill, the women appeared unaware that nestled high in a nearby conifer was a sight perhaps even more striking than those supertall towers: a Eurasian eagle-owl named Flaco.

Flaco had left the Central Park Zoo a week earlier after his mesh enclosure was vandalized. He had thus far eluded attempts to retrieve him and seemed in no rush to return to captivity. The tree was his latest perch.

Olga Torrey, a photographer, was one of the few people paying attention to the orange-and-black-striped bird of prey Thursday morning, along with several zoo employees. She wondered if he would ever return to the zoo.

“Once he has the taste of freedom, I’m not sure,” said Ms. Torrey, who has been photographing birds and other wildlife in city parks for the past 12 years.

Still, each day spent outside his familiar surroundings puts Flaco at risk, and not just because, having lived his whole life in captivity, he is not used to finding food on his own. If he did make a meal of, say, a rat, it could well be hazardous to his health.

Dustin Partridge, the director of conservation and science at NYC Audubon, called Flaco’s release from the zoo “unfortunate.” He said that plenty of owls managed to survive in New York City but that they faced potentially lethal challenges in the rat poisons they might ingest and the windows they might crash into.

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“These threats are very real,” Dr. Partridge said.

Eager for Flaco’s safe return, the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Central Park Zoo, has had staff members monitoring him nearly around the clock since he was discovered missing at around 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 2.

The number of employees watching him has risen at night, when he is typically on the move. In the overnight hours from Wednesday to Thursday, zoo staff members tried unsuccessfully to entice him with traps baited with rats.

Flaco was less than a year old when he arrived at the zoo in 2010, moving into the Temperate Territory section near snow leopards, snow monkeys and red pandas.

The Eurasian eagle-owl, or Bubo bubo, is among the largest owls and has a wingspan of up to 79 inches, according to the zoo. A nocturnal bird with distinctive orange eyes, it is found in much of Europe and Asia and parts of northern Africa, living in wooded habitats and typically hunting rodents, rabbits and large game birds at twilight.

Zoo employees have kept a close watch on Flaco during his Central Park sojourn.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
Flaco has drawn fewer spectators than the park’s earlier avian attractions.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Since no one had seen Flaco eat during his sojourn, some birding enthusiasts were concerned that he might starve. Ms. Torrey said on Thursday that he looked perfectly healthy to her and that he could have gobbled up something when no one was looking.

As documented by birders on social media, Flaco’s week of freedom had been busy: a stop on Fifth Avenue near Bergdorf Goodman; a face-off with a Cooper’s hawk; at least one close encounter with a squirrel; and stops across the park’s southeast corner, never far from the zoo but tantalizingly just out of reach.

He may have been active, but he did not seem to have become a mainstream celebrity like earlier avian attractions — no Mandarin duck, no Barry the barred owl.

In contrast to those other birds’ appearances, Flaco’s presence in the park was the result of a crime. The police said on Thursday that there had not been an arrest in the case and that the investigation was continuing. They declined to comment on whether the vandalism had been caught on camera.

The Central Park Zoo is one of several zoos in the United States that have experienced criminal acts of vandalism lately.

Last month, a clouded leopard escaped through a hole in its enclosure at the Dallas Zoo that officials said had been deliberately cut. The episode was one of several unusual occurrences at the zoo that also included the theft of two tamarin monkeys and the suspicious death of a vulture. On Feb. 3, the police said they had arrested a 24-year-old man, accusing him of stealing the tamarin monkeys and of cutting into other zoo enclosures.

This week, a man was arrested in the theft of a dozen squirrel monkeys from a Louisiana zoo, and keepers at the Houston Zoo discovered a four-inch gap cut in the mesh of the brown pelican habitat.

Dan Ashe, the president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said in a statement that in light of recent events, the group’s members were “enhancing awareness and security.” Wildlife Conservation Society officials declined to comment on what steps they had taken.

As for Central Park’s winged fugitive, at around 6:30 p.m. Thursday, David Barrett, who operates the Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter account, posted a message that Flaco was on the ground at Heckscher Playground, near the tree he had been in earlier in the day.

“Rescuers are watching closely,” Mr. Barrett wrote.

In a second message posted a short time later, he wrote that Flaco was “near rat bait and netting” at the playground with zoo employees still watching closely.

Then, just after 7 p.m., a third message: The owl had gone for the bait and gotten tangled briefly in the netting. “But,” Mr. Barrett continued, “Flaco quickly escaped and flew to a tree southwest” of the playground.

Zoo officials, focused on the delicate task of recovering the owl, did not appreciate Mr. Barrett’s play-by-play.

“Whatever your intent,” Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo, wrote on Twitter, “your need to seem relevant or involved in this effort is not at all helpful.”

And another night of watching began.

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