Flaco, NYC's famous Eurasian eagle-owl, perches on a branch

Rejoice, for Flaco the Eagle-Owl Has Come Home

Flaco, a Eurasian Eagle-Owl, is the most famous bird in New York City—and with news coverage abounding, he may well be the most famous bird in the world. Flaco’s story has spanned many months in 2023, and on November 17th saw a happy turn as he was spotted back in Central Park. He’d been on a lengthy and anxiety-inducing (for Flaco fans) trip into the wilds of lower Manhattan.

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I’ve been tracking Flaco’s activities for a while, along with what feels like half of New York, and I’m beyond thrilled at his return. I’m so invested that I received more than ten text messages from others about Flaco after the latest update, since I’ve been texting them about him nonstop. Why are we obsessed with a single bird on the lam? I’m so glad you asked.

Who is Flaco, and why do New Yorkers love him?

Flaco means “skinny” or “lean” in Spanish, but he’s a robust, large eagle-owl, of a type whose wingspan can reach up to six feet, according to the Audubon Society. He lived in captivity at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. In February 2023, he left his enclosure after it was damaged in an act of vandalism. (Who cut into Flaco’s enclosure is still unknown.) The bird-oriented community is a vocal and devoted one, the press loves an animal story, and everyone soon fell in love with Flaco. Flaco dominated headlines as keepers attempted to lure him back and, worried about his welfare, spent days trying to recapture him. Some even camped out and kept Flaco company 24/7 in the cold winter weather. There was concern that Flaco would be unable to hunt for himself and would find the park’s environs strange and uncertain hunting grounds. Even if he could acquire food, New York is full of perils and poisons, so worries flared about his welfare.

Meanwhile, birders flocked (sorry) to the park to catch a glimpse, and many, many people took pictures of Flaco, growing his celebrity status and spreading awareness about him. As Flaco continued to evade capture and proved against the odds to be independent, his legend only grew. New Yorkers love a tough cookie, and Flaco’s flouting of expectations and persistence in staying free created a Flaco fandom. He was an as-yet unseen sight in the city that has seen everything else, and he is imminently photogenic. The camera adores him. Flaco became a star.

Flaco leaves the park, and a new saga begins

Worries about Flaco abated after he proved able to hunt and seemed content on his own. He remained a social media darling, but the daily headlines died down. But in late October 2023, Flaco took wing from Central Park and made his way downtown. He was spotted on November 7th in the East Village in Manhattan, which is more than five miles away from the park.

A new chapter in Flaco’s story began. People downtown started photographing and sharing photos of Flaco in urban backdrops—Flaco, perched on an air conditioner high above the city, Flaco peeping in at a windowsill, Flaco on a tall building, Flaco visiting a balcony.

Mainstream news outlets upped the narrative stakes and speculated that Flaco might be on “a hopeless hunt for love,” hopeless because, according to bird experts, “He is unaware that there are no mates in the region.” This has never stopped lovelorn New Yorkers in the pursuit before. Flaco-watch grew to a fever pitch. I grew worried.

This is a particularly difficult moment in our history, with brutal conflicts, economic uncertainties, dangerous rights-infringing politics, toxic social media, and an endless array of societal difficulties seeming to grow by the day. Perhaps it strikes some as silly to care about a bird with so many vast issues at play. But the human brain can multitask—can still worry and root for the survival of a rogue eagle-owl even with the planet on fire around us. I started “joking” that my own personal well-being was contingent on Flaco being okay.

Overwrought? Dramatic? Sure. But rooting for Flaco and following news about him was a distraction that I needed, and a potential change in outcome I could pin on something specific. And so I, along with many others, checked in to watch what updates there were trickle in about Flaco, and to hope that he would return to Central Park. While there are dangers in the park, lower Manhattan is a whole other ballgame. I delighted in reports of Flaco’s downtown escapades, but worried that eventually I’d open up social media to bad news about him. It’s a bad news kind of world out there.

Flaco strikes back: the return of Flaco

Flaco-watchers began feeling more hopeful when he was sighted further uptown. Then, on November 17th, 2023, the excellent X (formerly Twitter) account Manhattan Bird Alert reported the news we’d been waiting for.

“Joy in Central Park today as Flaco the Eurasian Eagle-Owl has returned to reclaim his favorite oak tree,” they wrote, alongside a picture of Flaco on said oak tree branch, “standing his ground despite visits from a hawk and some crows.” When I tell you that I have rarely retweeted something faster:

Many of us following this segment of Flaco’s journey were concerned that it would have an unhappy conclusion. Flaco lost in New York seemed like a storyline likely to end in tragedy. But this time, it did not. And while the park and the city still holds threats for Flaco, we can take this moment to enjoy that he’s back safe in an area that feels more like home. Flaco has proved himself to be a true New Yorker, resilient and seemingly unflappable in the face of the city’s obstacles.

Caring about what happens to Flaco is a rare unifier in a cynical era. Those of us who take interest in his journey and hope for a happy existence for him are celebrating the persistence of something small in a big, scary place. I’m glad for Flaco, and glad for the kind of humanity I see in those who extend their thoughts to him.

Just a bird, some might say. But he’s our bird. And he’s back.

(featured image: Rhododendrites/Wikipedia Commons )

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Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.