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Flaco the owl becomes New York's newest tourist attraction, as he settles into Central Park home

Amid public outcry, the Central Park Zoo called off efforts to capture Flaco.

February 20, 2023, 9:11 AM

CENTRAL PARK -- Flaco, the newly freed Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped the Central Park Zoo on Feb. 2, was sitting camouflaged in a mighty elm tree in the southwest corner of the park when he heard a “hoot.”

Adjusting from his apparent slumber, Flaco turned his head and returned his own “hoot,” perhaps anticipating a response from another owl signaling their territory or attracting a mate -- a rarity for what is likely the only living Eurasian eagle-owl in New York.

However, the source of the original hoot was not another owl or a potential mate, but rather a human, standing yards away in a gaggle of locals and tourists photographing the famous owl.

PHOTO: Large crowd of birdwatchers flock to Central Park on Feb. 18, 2022, in a glimpse of Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from its vandalized enclosure at the Central Park Zoo.
Large crowd of birdwatchers flock to Central Park on Feb. 18, 2022, in a glimpse of Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from its vandalized enclosure at the Central Park Zoo.
ABC News

“When one moron starts it, everyone starts,” Lincoln Karim, an amateur bird photographer, said.

As nearly a hundred locals, birders and tourists assembled near Central Park’s volleyball courts to watch and photograph Flaco, Karim assumed the role of birding etiquette police, calling out from behind his camera rig to each person who made a noise.

“It's just that it's okay to stand and watch and photograph, but when you start hissing and hooting at the owl, that's disrespectful,” he said.

Unfortunately, for a bird of prey like Flaco, who spent years being gawked at by visitors to the Central Park Zoo before his escape, being watched is likely to be his reality for the near future. While popular birding accounts like Manhattan Bird Alert follow etiquette rules to prevent the swarming of birds like Flaco by posting a specific location, once a small crowd of photographers or bird watchers appears, it can increase rapidly.

PHOTO: Large crowd of birdwatchers flock to Central Park on Feb. 18, 2022, in a glimpse of Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from its vandalized enclosure at the Central Park Zoo.
Large crowd of birdwatchers flock to Central Park on Feb. 18, 2022, in a glimpse of Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from its vandalized enclosure at the Central Park Zoo.
ABC News

Heli, Jonathan and Elmina David were visiting the city from upstate Saturday and decided to walk the park, hoping to see Flaco. Heli's 91-year-old father had learned about the bird from Finnish television.

They admitted they initially thought the odds of spotting the well-camouflaged bird were low but were quickly proven wrong.

“I didn't think it would be this easy, that there would be a big giant crowd of people all around here,” David said about their easy discovery of the bird.

Lukas Bissette, a college student from France visiting New York, said he originally came to the city to see the Empire State Building but counts the Flaco sighting as an added benefit. (He said he prefers the Empire State Building over Flaco).

Upon discovering the bird, Elmina David expressed conflicting feelings about the nocturnal animal, who appeared to be sleeping, or at least trying to, when the crowd emerged.

PHOTO: Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure, seen on Feb. 18, 2023.
Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure, seen on Feb. 18, 2023.
ABC News

“I feel like he's saying like, ‘Can you give me some space?’ Like he's a nocturnal animal,” she said. “He's supposed to be asleep right now.”

JP Borum, who has been tracking Flaco since his escape and even intervened in an attempted capture at one point, said that Flaco admirers who try to see him during daylight are seeing him not at his chipper best.

“[It’s] like someone coming to your house and watching you watch Real Housewives as you drink tea before bed -- like that's not your best,” she said.

Borum, a birder who often goes out in the evenings, said she began monitoring weeks ago and spoke about Flaco with a mix of joy and pride.

When Flaco escaped his enclosure at the Central Park Zoo on Feb. 2, she said she initially communicated with Central Park Conservatory staff to help track Flaco.

PHOTO: Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure, seen on Feb. 17, 2023, showing he can defend himself, ruffling his feathers, puffing himself up and lunging at a raven that invaded his space.
Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure, seen on Feb. 17, 2023, showing he can defend himself, ruffling his feathers, puffing himself up and lunging at a raven that invaded his space.
Courtesy of Joe Amato

Over the next two weeks, crews scoured the park in an attempt to track Flaco, who initially exhibited behaviors that indicated he might not be able to adjust to survive in the wild; as Flaco's ability to survive improved, the Central Park Zoo began to change their stance on Flaco, deciding on Feb. 12 to refocus on monitoring Flaco and “opportunistically recover him when the situation is right.”

Flaco’s ability to hunt and survive appeared to grow as the days since he escaped grew, with photographers posting images of Flaco successfully hunting mice and growing more comfortable in his environment.

PHOTO: Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure, seen on Feb. 18, 2023.
Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure, seen on Feb. 18, 2023.
ABC News

“I was convinced after a few days that he was not behaving like a tame owl anymore,” Borum said about Flaco’s behavior last Monday.

Calls for Flaco to be permanently liberated reached their peak by Thursday when a petition began gaining signatures to call off Flaco’s capture, which the petition's creator alleged would force the bird into a “tiny, sad looking excuse for an owl habitat.”

On Friday, the Central Park Zoo finally threw in the towel, writing in a statement that they “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.”

For Flaco’s part, he appears to be thriving, fighting off three ravens on Friday, getting swarmed by tufted titmice on Saturday and continuing to hunt for himself.

PHOTO: Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure, seen on Feb. 17, 2023, showing he can defend himself, ruffling his feathers, puffing himself up and lunging at a raven that invaded his space.
Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure, seen on Feb. 17, 2023, showing he can defend himself, ruffling his feathers, puffing himself up and lunging at a raven that invaded his space.
Courtesy of Joe Amato

Borum said she believes Flaco faces no significant threats beyond the common ones the other birds of prey face, such as natural predators or accidental poisoning. Barry the Owl, another Central Park birding celebrity, died in 2021 after ingesting rat poison and being hit by a truck while impaired by the hallucinogen.

As for the crowds, Upper West Side resident Karen Shapiro said she believes the number of tourists will lessen over time.

“It weaned off after a few weeks to just be a handful of people that will not normally be in the park,” remarking about the last time an owl caused crowds.

To many in the park, the news came as a victory and a symbol of resilience, a stranger in a strange new world learning to survive in a city known for its welcoming of foreigners.

“This is one of the things I'm going to remember for the rest of my life,” Heli David said

Others, too, saw more profound meaning in the now free bird.

“He's like teaching me something,” Karim said. “Whether we be free for a couple of weeks in pure freedom and then die than to go back into a cage.”

ABC News' Bill Hutchinson contributed to this report.

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