New Yorkers mourn Flaco, beloved local owl who escaped Central Park Zoo and lived free in city

New York City residents are mourning the loss of a local legend: Flaco, the owl who became a sensation after getting loose from the Central Park Zoo and roaming free around Manhattan, has died.

His story inspired countless people, who are paying tribute to this iconic free bird.

Alfonso Lozano del Rey /

Flaco’s story

Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl, was born in captivity at a North Carolina bird park in 2010 and was soon brought to live in the Central Park Zoo, according to the New York Times.

But last February, a vandal shredded the mesh of his enclosure, allowing him to escape. It wasn’t long before Flaco was flying all over Manhattan, taking in all the famous sights for the first time in his life.

Experts were initially worried that Flaco was scared in this new environment and wouldn’t survive as he never learned to hunt, and made unsuccessful attempts to catch him. But over time, Flaco thrived: he began to hunt for food on his own, chowing down on the city’s famous rat population.

“He would sleep at the compost heap, wake up, hop over a few trees to a favorite perch and then hunt for rats,” birder David Lei told the Times.

Flaco became a fascination for local bird enthusiasts, who would track Flaco sightings around the city. His escape and unlikely survival became an inspiring story for many people, and Flaco became a local folk hero and symbol of freedom and self-reliance.

And though Manhattan was not a natural habitat for an owl and posed some dangers, many people agreed it was best to let him enjoy his newfound freedom.

“He’s probably super happy to be out of that cage,” said Christian Cooper, host of National Geographic’s Extraordinary Birder.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 15: Flaco, a Eurasian eagle owl that escaped from the Central Park Zoo, continues to roost and hunt in Central Park, February 15, 2023 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Rest in peace, Flaco

Flaco enjoyed freedom — and celebrity status — for just over a year, but sadly it was announced that Flaco died, after flying into an Upper West Side building on February 23.

“Our initial exam indicated that he had collided with a window,” the Wild Bird Fund wrote. “Whether there was an underlying cause, we don’t yet know.”

“We are grateful to all those who contacted us today and to all who helped with his rescue. Like you, like all of NYC, we are heartbroken.”

The Wildlife Conservation Society released details of the post-mortem: “The main impact appears to have been to the body, as there was substantial hemorrhage under the sternum and in the back of the body cavity around the liver,” the report says.

According to AP, Flaco had been in good shape at the time of his death, weighing 4.1 pounds, just 2% less than when he left the zoo. Further tests will be done to determine if toxins or disease were contributing factors in his death.

Flaco’s death was met with widespread mourning from the New Yorkers who loved him. Tributes on social media praised Flaco as “a symbol of freedom, hope and resilience.”

“I am sad beyond words,” David Lei wrote. “Flaco defied the odds and made quite a life for himself in the city over the past year. Along the way he came to mean so much to so many, including me.”

While Flaco’s freedom inspired many, others maintained that New York City was never a proper environment for a captive-born owl, and that his death was the tragic end result of being improperly set loose.

“An animal that is bred in captivity for most of its life, maybe shouldn’t be put in a zoo,” Alan Drogin, resident of the Upper West Side building where Flaco’s body was found, told Gothamist. “But if that’s the consequences of their life, they should be given proper sanctuary and living in the city was not proper sanctuary for it at all.”

“The vandal who damaged Flaco’s exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death,” WCS said in a statement. “We are still hopeful that the NYPD, which is investigating the vandalism, will ultimately make an arrest.”

According to Flaco’s Twitter account, a memorial was set up at his “old favorite oak tree” on the west side of East Drive at 104th street. The tweet encouraged people to leave flowers or a note, which many grieving New Yorkers were happy to do.

“I feel like he was showing us how we can break free out of our cages, the mundane, the things that don’t serve us, the things that hold us back,” one of the mourners leaving roses at the memorial, told the New York Times.

“He was my therapy,” added Alfonso Lozano, another mourner. “Flaco helped me to find freedom… Flaco means New York.”

Even New York’s top officials weighed in on the loss of this iconic New Yorker. New York Governor Kathy Hochul and NYC Mayor Eric Adams both shared their condolences.

According to ABC 7, local leaders are also pushing a new bill that would require NYC buildings to have bird-friendly designs and bird-free glass, renaming it “Flaco’s Act.”

It’s incredible how one bird could have such an inspiring impact on so many people. Flaco may be gone but he will never be forgotten ❤️ Fly free, Flaco!

Please share this story in memory of this incredible owl.