Fugitive Owl Making it in New York
During a recent visit to NYC, I went to look for this survivor. He’d recently been roosting in trees near a compost heap in the northeast part of the park. I couldn’t find GPS coordinates or any specific directions to his “favorite tree” online, so I hoped my positive attitude would lead me to the owl. When I arrived at the compost heap in the afternoon, I found it surrounded by trees that looked like the one he roosted in. But I couldn’t find the owl. There weren’t any agitated crows or songbirds giving his position away. No other birders came by, either. After 90 minutes of wandering and checking the branches over and over again, I decided to go get some food and return in an hour.
When I came back to the spot, I decided to search twitter for some help. I found an account called “Manhattan Bird Alert” (@BirdCentralPark), which included a bunch of posts of Flaco from the last week. They included lots of great photos, many close up, but those didn’t help me identify the tree. After scrolling forever, one showed a person standing by a blue dumpster, a big orange-white striped drum, and a fence, looking up into a tree. It had a caption that Flaco was in the tree. I’d walked past that blue dumpster several times, and looked up into that tree over and over again. But this gave me hope. With renewed optimism, I carefully scanned all the branches, from many angles. Within a few minutes, I caught a glimpse of the big owl’s back on a densely-leafed horizontal branch, presumably where he’d been all day long.
Moving around, I found 3 precise spots where you got good looks. Move 2 feet in any direction from those spots, and he disappeared. It was still an hour before sunset, so he wasn’t moving. Indeed, he only bothered to open one eye. About 15 minutes after I found him, the adult Baltimore Orioles who were feeding two young in a nearby nest started harassing the big Eagle-Owl. This prompted him to open both eyes. He was a big, healthy looking owl.
Eurasian Eagle-Owls are one of the largest owls on earth. They’re the orange-eyed Eurasian counterpart to America’s Great Horned Owl. They live from Spain to Russia in a wide range of habitats. Like many owls, they are nocturnal predators, heading out just after sunset to hunt.
The biggest debate surrounding Flaco is whether he should be recaptured and returned to the zoo or allowed to roam freely. The Audubon Society had a long piece on it with many considered views. I’m firmly in the camp that supports Flaco’s freedom. There’s some appeal to the idea that he’ll live a longer life in captivity. He wouldn’t be eating poisoned rodents, and wouldn’t risk a nighttime collision with a vehicle. But that logic applies just as well to the Great Horned Owls who call Central Park home. I can’t so easily go along with the notion that recapture is what is best. Would spending years in captivity, inside a mesh school bus be a better life than weeks or months or maybe years of wild freedom? I doubt that any captive animals, or humans, would say yes.
Moreover, this isn’t an endangered species. Flaco is little more than a gorgeous display item at the zoo. That’s not to say I support zoo vandalism. Zoos do great work, promoting animal and habitat conservation. But this Eurasian Eagle-Owl, despite a life in captivity and confident assertions to the contrary, has made the transition to self-supporting NYC resident. Let’s enjoy the survival story as long as it lasts.