By Keith Michael
Walking down Perry Street on the way to my morning train, a bevy of adorable, though complaining, peak-capped Tufted Titmice bounding through the treetops and a pickup team of nagging Blue Jays seem to be reminding me that I had promised them to write about neighborhood birds this month rather than tales of my fine-feathered galivanting around the city. Unfortunately, the avian news of the hour is: “Flaco here. Flaco there. Flaco, Flaco everywhere!”
If you haven’t heard, Flaco is a Eurasian Eagle Owl, a resident of the Central Park Zoo, whose aviary was vandalized on the chilly evening of Thursday, February 2nd. After a lifetime living at the zoo, he escaped into the wide, wide wonderland of Central Park. His earliest nocturnal forays included tours of Fifth Avenue and Grand Army Plaza, posing briefly with police-protected notoriety on the sidewalk outside of the Plaza Hotel, and then roosting within the Hallett Nature Sanctuary overlooking the Pond of Central Park. Zoo staff were on exhausting 24-hour surveillance, following his every move to attempt an orchestrated rescue.
The following days were an avian paparazzi circus as the word got out that this huge, photogenic owl, akin to our Great Horned Owl, was on the lam. With deep orange eyes, prominent ear tufts blowing in the wind, a handsome orange and brown chevroned chest, his enormous size, a mellifluous baritone hoot, and fearlessness after more than a decade of stare-downs with ogling zoo visitors, Flaco was an instant celebrity.
Crossing West 4th Street, a cheerio-ing Cardinal seems unfazed by, or more likely, unaware of, the uptown drama, and more encouraging to “Get on with the story.”
By choosing various prominent roosts during the day in the vicinity of the zoo, some surmised that Flaco was staying within earshot of the regular, perhaps soothing, chimes of the Delacorte animated clock. Everyone was on high alert for his timely, safe return home. Most feared that he lacked the hunting skills to survive on his own. While media attention was kept to a minimum to aid in his retrieval, Flaco’s unobstructed slumbers, after wakeful nights, were attracting larger and larger crowds, and larger and larger camera lenses. All that fancy gear inevitably led to satellite throngs of bewildered rubberneckers:
“What’s everyone looking at?”
“It’s an owl.”
“I don’t see it.”
“Follow that branch.”
“Is it rare?”
“He’s the Eurasian Eagle Owl that escaped from the zoo.”
“Really? It’s an owl from a zoo? I still don’t see it.”
After nearly a week, Flaco began straying further from the zoo and had ably caught, and dined upon, his first free-range Rattus norvegicus. Reasonable speculation that Flaco’s ability to fend for himself had been compromised in captivity was being proven otherwise. The tide was turning. Both the enthusiasm and necessity for his rescue was waning. As week two of his new-found life in the wild opened before him, Flaco moved from the zoo environs to Heckscher Playground, then to Sheep Meadow, to Rumsey Field, to the Mall, and north to the Ramble. He was getting closer and closer to the territory of Geraldine, Central Park’s resident Great Horned Owl. While waiting for him to open his eyes from his daytime nap for that perfect shot, idle gossip began circulating as to whether Flaco and Geraldine might establish an inter-species situationship—a made-for-the-tabloids sensation.
At West 11th Street and Waverly Place, a breakfast club of American Robins are pillaging the last fruits from the Callery Pears. I contemplate whether they may have never seen an owl.
With Flaco’s freedom entering week three, the debate between those siding with Flaco’s return to the zoo for his future welfare, and those championing that he had proven himself and deserved to continue living, in current parlance, “his best life” out of captivity was rampant and heated. As with most controversies, New Yorkers seem to have a predilection for fueling these quarrels with more and more heightened rhetoric. But Flaco has mastered another New Yorker trait, and seems to be able to shrug off the harassments of the local Red-tailed Hawks, the scolding Titmice, the haranguing gangs of crows, the insults of the Blue Jays, the foolhardy inquisitiveness of squirrels, and the incessant clicks of all those damn photographers’ shutters, as just more of the slings and arrows of his current outrageous fortune.
Stepping down toward the subway, a ceiling of pigeons explodes above me with a long-tailed Cooper’s Hawk in murderous chase, while my pocket buzzes with, perhaps, a Twitter update about Flaco’s ongoing saga. Ah, the call of the wild.
Keith Michael, West Villager, birder, urban naturalist, photographer, dance production manager, and ballet choreographer, leads nature walks throughout the NYC area.