An outpouring of tears, heartbreak as fans flock to NYC's Central Park memorial for Flaco the owl

"He was beautiful," New York birding enthusiast David Barrett said of Flaco.

February 25, 2024, 1:05 PM

The death of Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure and spent more than a year as a free bird eating rats and winning admirers, has prompted an outpouring of love and heartbreak as New Yorkers gathered this weekend at one of his favorite trees to pay respect.

Many fans of Flaco dropped off bouquets, poems, condolence cards, stuffed teddy bears and toy owls at an oak tree in the park's North Woods and expressed grief for the fugitive fowl, often citing his resilience and plight to survive in the wild against longshot odds after living the first 12 years of his life in captivity.

Some admirers paying homage to the orange-eyed owl, who became a symbol of freedom as his fame spread worldwide, hugged, cried and swapped stories of encounters with Flaco, recalling how they looked on in awe as he tested the limits of his 6-foot wingspan.

A 3-year-old mourner named Riley pays respects on Feb. 24, 2024, at a growing memorial for Flaco the owl in New York City's Central Park.
Bill Hutchinson/ABC News

Artist Calicho Arevalo told ABC News he spent most of Saturday completing his eighth street mural honoring Flaco in lower Manhattan before trekking to Central Park to express his condolences at the impromptu memorial to the iridescent feathered creature. He said the bird not only gave him artistic inspiration, but he found parallels between his and Flaco's plights to survive in a new world.

"For me, it’s more the story of an immigrant or someone not from the city, and then [he] flies free and finds his instincts to trust himself and survive. Everybody was like, ‘You’re going to die tomorrow,'" Arevalo said of the naysayers who initially doubted Flaco's ability to fend for himself in the wilds of America's largest city.

PHOTO: Flaco, an escaped Eagle owl, remains in Central Park
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 15: Flaco, a Eurasian eagle owl that escaped from the Central Park Zoo, continues to roost and hunt in Central Park, February 15, 2023 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

He said friends called him "crazy" for giving up a career as an architect in Colombia to chase his dream of being an artist in New York City.

"It’s kind of my scenario," he said of Flaco. "I was like, I have faith that art could be my path. So that's my parallel with Flaco."

Artist Calicho Arevalo, who has painted eight murals of Flaco the owl in New York City, pays respect on Feb. 24, 2024, at a growing memorial in Central Park.
Bill Hutchinson/ABC News

Other mourners left heartfelt notes at the memorial.

"We deeply mourn your passing. We love birds and owls, but you especially. Your freedom brought great joy to me and my mother. And now you are gone into eternal flight," one handwritten note left at the memorial said.

Another note read, "You moved us all. We loved you so much. We are so glad you had a year of freedom."

Flaco died Friday night after apparently colliding with a building on West 89th Street in Manhattan, according to a statement from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which runs the Central Park Zoo.

People in the building reported the downed owl to the Wild Bird Fund (WBF). Staff from the WBF quickly responded, but Flaco was nonresponsive and they declared him dead shortly afterward.

A growing impromptu memorial for Flaco the owl sprang up at one of the apex predator's favorite trees in New York City's Central Park following his death on Feb. 23, 2024.
Lisa Amand

The initial findings from a necropsy performed Saturday are consistent with death due to "acute traumatic injury," WCS officials said.

The "main impact" was to his body, with "substantial hemorrhage" under the sternum and around the liver, according to the WCS statement. There were no bone fractures found.

Flaco was otherwise in good health, zoo officials said, with "good muscling and adequate fat stores." He weighed 4.1 pounds, nearly as much as when his weight was last taken at the zoo.

More tests are being conducted to determine if there were underlying factors that may have contributed to Flaco's demise, including the potential exposures to rodenticide or other toxins, the WCS said.

The zoo officials said the vandal who, on the evening of Feb. 2, 2023, cut open the stainless steel mesh of Flaco's enclosure, enabling the owl to bolt into the wilds of the concrete jungle, is ultimately responsible for his death.

"The vandal who damaged Flaco’s exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death. We are still hopeful that the NYPD, which is investigating the vandalism, will ultimately make an arrest," the WCS said.

The New York Police Department said the investigation is ongoing, but no suspect has been identified.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams acknowledged the importance of Flaco to the city that never sleeps.

"We were saddened to hear about the passing of our neighbor Flaco, who captivated New Yorkers and reminded us of the beautiful wilderness that exists in our bustling urban landscape," Adams said in a social media post on X, formerly known as Twitter. "Although he’s gone, his spirit will fly over NYC forever."

David Barrett, the creator and manager of Manhattan Bird Alert, the go-to New York bird watchers' social media site boasting more than 91,000 followers on X, told ABC News on Sunday that Flaco's death "brought a tremendous outpouring of grief from all over the world."

"Flaco was not only the world's most famous bird, but he was also the world's most loved bird -- and he was beautiful," said Barrett, who took thousands of photos and videos of Flaco over the past year.

"He quickly became a symbol of freedom and resilience," Barrett added. "He took us on adventures, first across Central Park and later across all Manhattan, which we shared with his many fans. Through Flaco, people learned in detail about the life of a wild owl. We had hoped that his life of freedom would stretch on for many years. We are sad that it ended so soon, but Flaco's story will live on and continue to inspire."

Barrett, who organized the vigil at the Central Park tree where Flaco frequently perched as he scanned a nearby compost heap for rodents, said he will remember the owl "at the peak of his powers, on top of the world -- an owl who inspired so many as he went from living in a tiny enclosure to owning the Manhattan skyline in less than a year."

Related Topics