Flaco the Central Park owl has been free for a year. An NYC photographer looks back.

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By Dan Sears

Friday marks a year since an owl named Flaco escaped from his home in New York’s Central Park Zoo after vandals damaged his mesh enclosure.

Within days, the Eurasian eagle owl amassed fans in New York and beyond who worried about his ability to survive in the big city.

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But Flaco is thriving. New Yorkers continue to spot him on fire escapes and cornices, and have observed him peering into windows.

The owl’s feathery form even appears on sweatshirts, coffee mugs and stickers, among other merch.

Few people know Flaco better than Manhattan-based wildlife observer and photographer David Lei, who specializes in urban owls.

He’s been following and photographing Flaco for the past year and estimates he has taken tens of thousands of photos of the celebrity bird.

Lei caught up with WNYC’s Michael Hill to discuss a year of Flaco.

Michael Hill: David, you probably know Flaco pretty well by now. Describe him for us.

David Lei: First of all, Flaco is beautiful. Just absolutely majestic and magnificent. He looks much like our native great horned owls, but quite different with beautiful orange plumes and orange eyes. He’s got a massive 6-foot wingspan, and it’s just a delight to behold him.

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In addition to that, he really has an interesting personality. First of all, he is very curious. Once, we saw him on a pitcher’s mound on one of the Central Park baseball fields, and somebody had left behind their pitcher’s rosin bag, and he started playing with it. Owls are occasionally playful, but it was very interesting to observe him do that.

Flaco on a Central Park baseball field pitchers mound.

Photo by David Lei

In the beginning, there was concern that Flaco wouldn’t know how to hunt and survive outside captivity, but now he’s a true New Yorker. How do you think he was able to adjust?

He really just needed to embrace that instinct and rediscover his wild nature. He initially wasn’t very good at flying. He’d get exhausted quite quickly, flying a short distance from one tree to the next, crashing into branches when he went to land, but he kept at it.

And over time, he got better. He got better very quickly, actually. And before long, he was quite graceful in flight.

We were also quite fortunate to watch him learn how to hunt. One other way that I could see Flaco’s confidence increasing was in his hooting.

Initially, he would hoot quite softly. I overheard one of the zookeepers tell a fellow birder that he scarcely ever hooted in the zoo.

Flaco on a rock in Central Park

Photo by David Lei

What’s your favorite photo you’ve taken of Flaco?

My favorite one, I would say, is of him sitting on a Central Park bench. That’s something that had been on my wish list of locations to see him. And amazingly, one night, it actually happened. And I think it just speaks to how he is an owl of the city.

And how’s he doing?

I last saw Flaco on the Upper West Side around 90th and Broadway two nights ago. He was hooting from what’s become a favorite building, and he looked great. He seems to be doing really well.

The hooting does appear to require a fair bit of energy to project that sound two blocks away, and to keep at it for perhaps hours on end.

I’m not sure how long he was at it the other night because he had more stamina than I did. But if he’s got the stamina to do that, I think he is quite healthy, and he looks healthy.

Flaco on a water tower

Photo by David Lei

David, what has the last year taught you? Not just about Flaco, but about all the people who are really rooting for him.

Something I think that’s really resonated with people about Flaco is how he was able to completely transform himself. Flaco is now going on 14. He is well into adulthood for the lifespan of an owl. He had lived in captivity his whole life: born to captive owls, didn’t know how to fly, didn’t know how to hunt, didn’t know how to survive in the wild when he was first released.

And yet he was able to figure all that out and create a totally new life for himself in New York City.

So if Flaco can make it here, he can make it anywhere.

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