A year in the concrete jungle with Flaco, the 'most famous owl in the world'

"Flaco is learning as he goes," said renowned avian writer Jennifer Ackerman.

January 29, 2024, 5:01 AM

He's been all around New York City, leaving admirers gawking at his iridescent coat and spellbound by his orange eyes. He's been pecked at and screeched to by rivals, even becoming a subject for late-night TV talk shows. This is the story of how Flaco, a runaway owl from the Central Park Zoo, has become an international celebrity with a legion of admirers and fans.

On Feb. 2, the apex predator will mark one year since he slipped through an opening vandals cut in the stainless steel mesh of his enclosure at the Central Park Zoo and bolted into the wilds of America's largest city, testing the limits of his six-foot wingspan for the first time in his life.

"This is very unusual. Flaco is a Eurasian eagle owl and they're the second biggest owl in the world, and as their name suggests, they're native to Eurasia. So their normal range runs from Western Europe to the Far East," renowned science writer Jennifer Ackerman told ABC News. "This is an incredible opportunity for New Yorkers to see this truly magnificent Eurasian owl flying around Central Park and the rest of Manhattan and to see him roost and hear him hooting ... it's just quite extraordinary."

An original artwork of Flaco painted by ABC News reporter Bill Hutchinson.
Bill Hutchinson/ABC News

Ackerman said it was "such a delight" to learn that the publication of her 2023 New York Times bestselling book -- "What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World's Most Enigmatic Birds" -- happened to coincide with Flaco's time on the lam.

"I learned about Flaco's escape almost immediately because I'm on all the owl listservs, and I just couldn't believe it," Ackerman said. "It was like, 'Oh, this is just so magical and interesting.' I think people are just fascinated by his story."

The great escape

Flaco unwittingly transformed from an obscure bird to a cause célèbre after being reported missing on Feb. 2, 2023, from the cramped Central Park digs that served as his home since 2010, when he arrived in the city as a fledgling from a North Carolina bird sanctuary.

A "criminal mischief" incident report from the New York Police Department says officers responded to the zoo after getting a complaint from an employee that sometime between 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. "an unknown individual(s) damaged an owl enclosure and an owl escaped. The suspect(s) fled the location in an unknown direction. The owl did not suffer any injuries."

Flaco the owl, hatched and raised in captivity for 12 years, is pictured here living his life of freedom in Central Park after escaping from his vandalized enclosure on Feb. 2, 2023.
David Barrett

An NYPD spokesperson told ABC News the case remains under investigation and no arrests have been made.

Flaco immediately caused a stir on one of Manhattan's most fashionable shopping streets, Fifth Avenue, where he landed on the sidewalk near the Bergdorf Goodman department store, drawing a crowd and the NYPD. Officers cordoned him off with yellow crime scene tape and set an open cage next to him, apparently in case he wanted to surrender. Before they could move in to catch him, the mottled-colored creature flew off to a tree in front of the Plaza Hotel.

Original art by ABC News reporter Bill Hutchinson.
Bill Hutchinson/ABC News

David Barrett, the creator and manager of Manhattan Bird Alert, the go-to New York bird watchers' social media site boasting more than 86,500 followers on X, told ABC News he first encountered Flaco the following day at the Hallett Nature Sanctuary in the southeast corner of Central Park, near the zoo.

"It eventually got to 13 degrees that night, the coldest night of the year," Barrett recalled, adding that Flaco was in a bare tree being buffeted by 25 mph gusts and bothered by red-tailed hawks. "It was a tough day, but Flaco stood his ground."

David Barrett, creator and operator of the Manhattan Bird Alert social media site, is pictured here on Jan. 13, 2024, photographing Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl in the North Woods of Central Park.
Bill Hutchinson/ABC News

Barrett, who has since taken thousands of photos and videos of Flaco, said he and other birders were concerned the animal wouldn't be able to feed himself or have the stamina and know-how to fly very far.

"He hadn't been flying in his tiny enclosure at the zoo, so the first night he was out he could only fly a block or two," Barrett said. "He just didn't have the endurance to fly any farther."

David Barrett, creator and operator of the Manhattan Bird Alert social media site, is pictured here on Jan. 13, 2024, photographing Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl in the North Woods of Central Park.
Courtesy of David Barrett

But within a week, Flaco was "flying with grace and power," Barrett said, and proving his doubters wrong. On Feb. 11, 2023, ABC News witnessed Flaco regurgitating a pellet containing what appeared to be a rodent carcass and fur, providing photographic evidence he was indeed fending for himself.

"The amazing thing is that Flaco taught himself how to hunt rats within a matter of a few days. His survival depended on it. He did it and from that point on, we knew Flaco would be fine," Barrett said.

A pellet regurgitated by Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his Central Park Zoo enclosure on Feb. 2, 2023, shows apparent rodent bones and fur from meals he’s been eating.
Bill Hutchinson/ABC News

Ackerman, who has written about birds for more than a decade and has traveled the world studying owls for the past four years, said that while Eurasian eagle owls are "a very adaptable species," there has been more than just instincts aiding Flaco's survival in the city that never sleeps.

"Flaco is learning as he goes and he's mapping his new territory. He's finding the best hunting spots and remembering them," Ackerman said. "There's a lot of very rapid learning going on and I think that's a sign of real intelligence in this bird, as in so many other birds."

It's also likely Flaco learned to hunt by watching other birds, she said, adding, "Certainly, there's a lot of social learning that goes on with birds."

Jennifer Ackerman, author of the bestselling book "What an Owl Knows: The New Science of the World's Most Enigmatic Birds," speaks of seeing Flaco the Eurasian eagle owl in Central Park.
ABC News

Ackerman also noted Flaco's lineage has benefited his newfound lifestyle as a wild bird, saying Eurasian eagle owls are the "most powerful hunters of any owl species." She said his "sensory superpowers" have also been a plus.

"One of them is that they can see in very dim light. He has super sensitive hearing, so he can hone in on very faint sounds of rats rustling in the leaves. And then he has super quiet flight so he can swoop in and take his prey without making a sound," Ackerman said.

Flaco on the move

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which runs the Central Park Zoo, initially launched a team to try to recover Flaco by setting traps, chasing him with nets and even playing audio recordings of siren calls from female Eurasian eagle owls. But their efforts garnered a backlash from Flaco's admirers and a Change.org petition demanding "Free Flaco, the Central Park Zoo Owl" that was signed by more than 1,600 people.

In a Feb. 12, 2023, statement, the WCS said it was scaling back attempts to snare Flaco.

"Since the first night, our staff has intensely monitored the eagle owl each day and evening to document and observe his behavior and activity in Central Park," zoo officials said in the statement. "Several days ago, we observed him successfully hunting, catching and consuming prey. We have seen a rapid improvement in his flight skills and ability to confidently maneuver around the park. A major concern for everyone at the beginning was whether Flaco would be able to hunt and eat; that is no longer a concern."

The WCS declined ABC News' request for comment on Flaco's first anniversary outside the zoo.

The closest the zoo came to capturing Flaco was when it set a trap baited with a lab rat on the Heckscher Ballfields in Central Park about a week after he escaped, Barrett said.

Flaco the owl pictured here standing next to a trap his zoo handlers unsuccessfully tried to snare him in after he escaped from his vandalized Central Park Zoo enclosure on Feb. 2, 2023.
David Barrett

"Flaco, after being curious about that rat for a while, came close to the trap and triggered the trap. But the trap didn't quite snare him. He quickly got out of it and he flew off as the zoo team was rushing toward him. He earned his freedom by just seconds," said Barrett, who photographed the incident.

After initially flying around the southern end of Central Park, Flaco moved up to the North Woods of the urban oasis, feasting on rodents at a compost heap and hanging out at a construction site, where photographers snapped images of him perching atop a yellow excavator.

Original art by ABC News reporter Bill Hutchinson.
Bill Hutchinson/ABC News

"He's certainly my most photographed bird of 2023," Barrett said. "He's the most famous bird in the world."

Ackerman, who lives in Virginia, said she got an in-person look at Flaco when she visited Central Park in October.

"It was right around sunset. He was roosting in this tree and he kind of woke up and he began to stretch his wings, kind of shook his feathers and he perched for awhile until it got dark and then he went out to hunt," Ackerman said of the experience. "It was a high point for me."

Flaco Sightings in Manhattan
ABC News

A few weeks after Ackerman's encounter with the owl, Flaco took his longest journey so far, spending more than a week exploring the East Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan, perching in private gardens and courtyards of residential buildings before returning to the Central Park area.

Barrett said the change in scenery might have been spurred by Flaco's tiring of being harassed by other birds in Central Park or that he was searching for a mate.

"Now, of course, there won't be any mates for Flaco because he's the only member of his species in all of North America in the wild. But he doesn't know that," Barrett said.

A large crowd of birdwatcher's flock to Central Park, Feb. 10, 2023, to catch a glimpse of Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from its vandalized enclosure at the Central Park Zoo.
Lisa Amand

Since returning to upper Manhattan, Flaco has continued to favor courtyards, windowsills, balcony railings and even air conditioners.

"They give him someplace to rest. They give him shelter," Barrett said. "That's the big change that's happened in Flaco in just the last two months."

The owl has also revisited some of his favorite hunting grounds. On Jan. 13, ABC News spotted him preening and jumping between branches near the Loch in the North Woods.

Love at first sight

Nan Knighton -- a poet and Tony-nominated playwright of the musical "The Scarlet Pimpernel" -- said she wasn't familiar with Flaco's plight until Nov. 14 when she looked out the kitchen window of her 13th-floor apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and saw the majestic owl perched on her narrow ledge staring back at her. Initially startled, Knighton told ABC News she "fell in love on the spot."

Nan Knighton, a poet and Broadway playwright, speaks of a close encounter she had with Flaco in November when he roosted on the kitchen window ledge of her 13th-floor Upper East Side apartment.

For three hours, Knighton said she spoke to the owl who stared back at her with his saucer-like eyes. At one point she got a little too close to the window, prompting her velvety-feathered visitor to let out a little hiss.

While phoning animal rescue groups believing the big bird needed to be saved, Knighton's son-in-law texted her a photo of Flaco and staff at Manhattan's Wild Bird Fund emailed her back confirming it was indeed the famed raptor.

Timeline of Flaco on the Lam
ABC News

"Up close, he's this beautiful brindled fur and feathers. It's all colors. It's ochre and gold and different shades of brown and white," Knighton said. "I was kind of monotonous in telling him, 'You're gorgeous.'"

Asked where Flaco fell in with the A-listers she's met in the entertainment industry, Knighton didn't hesitate, saying, "Of all the luminaries I've ever met, he was the most luminous."

Why the fascination with Flaco?

Fascination with Flaco has spread worldwide. In April, the French newspaper Le Monde featured the owl, suggesting, "The bird's story is worthy of a Walt Disney screenplay." In March, "Late Night" host Seth Meyers did a segment on Flaco, quipping, "Every New Yorker wants to live on Central Park, suddenly this dude was living in Central Park -- without a trust fund. Incredible."

After The Wall Street Journal published an article in December portraying Flaco as a "Peeping Tom" for his new habit of peering into people's windows, "The Late Show" host Stephen Colbert joked, "It's pretty bad when turning your head 360 degrees is the second creepiest thing about you."

Flaco tops a totem pole in Tulare, California. Original art by ABC News reporter Bill Hutchinson.
Bill Hutchinson/ABC News

Ackerman said the human fascination with owls dates back tens of thousands of years with owls being depicted in the earliest cave paintings.

"I think it's because we humans see something familiar. Owls have these forward-facing eyes and round heads like we have. At the same time, they're associated with this kind of dark side of existence, that they're night creatures and they have this extraordinary ability to hunt at night," Ackerman said. "So, I think that that's very gripping for people to think of them as familiar, but also kind of otherworldly."

In this Feb. 15, 2023, file photo, Flaco, a Eurasian eagle owl that escaped from the Central Park Zoo, sits in a tree in Central Park, in New York.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images, FILE

Barrett noted there are other owls in Central Park besides Flaco, recalling how hundreds of mourners turned out for a memorial service for a barred owl dubbed Barry, who was struck and killed by a Central Park maintenance vehicle in 2021. But Barrett said no owl, or any other bird for that matter, has captured attention like Flaco, who has a Wikipedia page, social media accounts on X and Instagram, and is featured in several murals around New York City.

"I think people see Flaco not just as a symbol of freedom, but as a champion of the underdog because he surely was the underdog starting out," Barrett said. "The odds were so stacked against him being able to survive and succeed, but he did it."

Lisa Amand contributed to this report.