Flaco the Owl Spreads His Wings, Devours Rats and Learns to Survive

Halley Barton was at a dinner party with friends on Saturday night when someone in the group shared the news that the Eurasian eagle-owl Flaco had coughed up a pellet of animal matter — rat fur and bones — in Central Park.

The announcement, she said, had been greeted with cheers because it meant that Flaco, who had been loose from the Central Park Zoo for over a week, was learning to hunt for his meals and to survive outside captivity.

“It’s really exciting to see him learning how to catch his own rats,” said Ms. Barton, a health care case manager who was at the park around 1 p.m. Monday for her first look at the black-and-orange bird of prey. She had followed his activities online before then.

After Flaco flew off on Feb. 2 — his mesh enclosure had been vandalized — zoo officials, bird watchers and everyday people worried that he might not know how to fend for himself. He had never done so in his 13-year life.

Flaco near a trap baited with a rat. His ability to hunt for himself prompted zoo officials to scale back the intensity of their effort to retrieve him. Credit…Jacqueline Emery

But by Sunday, his survival instincts had kicked in enough for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the zoo, to say it would ease the intensity of its effort to retrieve him. He had earned the chance to live without 24-hour scrutiny.

“A major concern for everyone at the beginning was whether Flaco would be able to hunt and eat,” the society said in a statement, noting that zoo employees had observed him catching and consuming prey. “That is no longer a concern.”

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Flaco’s ability to catch his own food, the society said, had prompted officials to “rethink our approach” to returning him to the zoo while remaining focused on his well being. (He had narrowly avoided being captured with a baited trap Friday evening.)

In addition to proving himself as a hunter, the society said in its statement, Flaco had shown “a rapid improvement in his flight skills and ability to confidently maneuver around the park.”

“We will continue to monitor him, though not as intensely, and look to opportunistically recover him when the situation is right,” the society added.

As of Monday, Flaco’s movements had mostly been confined to the park’s south end, and he seemed “comfortable” there, the society said, adding: “We don’t want to do anything to encourage him to leave this site.”

His activities had included facing off with a Cooper’s hawk, at least one close encounter with a squirrel and a foray onto Fifth Avenue near Bergdorf Goodman.

Flaco spent his first of days of freedom near the zoo and the Hallett Nature Sanctuary before settling into an area a bit farther west toward the end of last week.

That is where Ms. Barton and about a dozen other people were politely observing him in the unseasonably warm sunshine on Monday. He did not appear fazed by the crowd, and, in line with the society’s statement, no zoo workers could be seen standing by.

Richard Simon, the wildlife unit director at the New York City’s parks department, said it was “encouraging that Flaco has demonstrated a limited ability to feed himself.” Still, he said, “he may not possess all the skills and endurance required for life in the wild” and “safely returning him to his home is in everyone’s best interest.”

Dr. Kevin J. McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., said that retrieving a bird like Flaco would typically involve a baited trap but that such devices were less effective when the quarry was not hungry.

He said the zoo’s decision to pause and recalibrate its efforts made sense. Flaco might be easier to capture if he were to get comfortable in his new setting, he suggested.

Dr. McGowan said that in his experience, owls were not particularly smart. Nonetheless, he added, “they own their niche” as a nocturnal aerial predator.

“They don’t need to be smart to be successful,” he said, noting that owls’ predatory nature, talons, superb hearing and silent flying gave them “the tools and the talent to make it in the world.”

And while Flaco’s tools and talent could allow him to carve out a new life in Central Park, Dr. McGowan said the owl faced potential danger in the poisons he might ingest and the windows and vehicles he might collide with.

He also cited another possible threat: a confrontation with a great horned owl. At least one has been spotted in Central Park in recent months.

“If they got into a fight,” Dr. McGowan said, “I’m not sure which one I’d choose.”

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