New York City’s latest celebrity fascination is fluffy, on the loose, and remarkably adept at hunting rodents. After escaping from Central Park Zoo and establishing himself in Central Park in February, Flaco has captured the imaginations of New Yorkers, amassing large crowds eager to see him enjoy his newfound freedom. But, as Lady Gaga showed us all in her 2009 magnum opus, celebrity can have serious downsides. Is Flaco’s fame more harmful than hurtful?
All the attention could make it hard for the Eurasian Eagle Owl to get a bite to eat. Rochelle Thomas, the Greenwich Center Director for the Audubon Society, says that crowds could “raise his profile,” meaning that he’s more visible to prey, and this could impact his late-night hunting abilities. She described a phenomenon known as “mobbing” where birds like blue jays will make a call alerting prey animals that there’s an owl nearby—and they’re more likely to do this when there are a lot of people around. This means that Flaco could have to spend more energy hunting than he would if he were left alone.
“In general, humans observing a bird or a coyote or whatever is not really good for the animal,” said Ted Floyd, the Editor at Birding Magazine. As is the case for humans, it’s just harder for animals to relax if they’re surrounded by fans constantly. The attention could result in Flaco having to spend energy looking for hiding spots. All that energy expenditure, in turn, leads to the need for more food. All this means that owls should probably have a limited relationship with the internet. In an email, Dustin Partridge, Director of Conservation & Science at NYC Audubon, told me that “because owls are easily disturbed, we do not condone the public posting of owl locations, like on social media or listserves.”
However, Flaco’s fame could benefit other birds. Thomas described owls like Flaco as “charismatic megafauna,” which can act as an “expressive proxy” for other birds and wildlife. Flaco may prompt people to also pay attention to other kinds of urban wildlife that didn’t escape from the zoo. In a sort of sad irony for Flaco, a lot of the educational value from celeb birds is in raising awareness around the challenges that urban birds, especially hunters, face. Rodenticide meant to combat rats can find its way into the raptors that eat them; window collisions kill more than 90,000 birds a year; cars are an ever-present threat. In 2021, another celebrity owl, Barry the barred owl, was killed from a vehicle collision that may have been caused in part by a buildup of rat poison in her body.
The dramatic downfall of a celeb bird, while tragic, can spur people to take action to protect urban birds. According to Partridge, you can make your windows safer by making them more visible, like letting them be dirty or applying bird-friendly film. You can also reach out to your building management to ask if rodenticide is being used try to get them to reduce how much they use. Finally, you can make extra efforts to turn off as many lights as possible at night, as they can confuse migratory birds and cause more window collisions.
Educational value aside, there’s also something to be said for just appreciating the aesthetic beauty of seeing an owl in the wild. “Seeing one is just an incredibly bewitching, arresting moment,” Floyd said.
All of this was starting to make me really want to see Flaco for myself, but I felt conflicted about possibly adding to the crowds. Despite their warnings, experts I spoke to told me that it is possible to observe birds like Flaco in a way that minimizes disruption to them. Thomas calls it “owl-iquette” and it includes not getting too close, not playing owl calls loudly, and keeping an eye out for agitated behaviors like if it’s staring at you. (Luckily, Flaco is very girthy, so he’s easy to spot while keeping a solid distance.)
Emboldened, I decided to journey into the wilds of Central Park. After spotting a small throng of people, I knew I had found my quarry. There were about 18 people keeping a 10 foot radius from a tree where Flaco was hanging out. I was pleasantly surprised by how quiet people were, speaking in hushed tones only intermittently, though there was a flood of camera shutters when he moved his head or coughed up a pellet. Most of them brought binoculars and professional-looking cameras, and I quickly realized that I was sorely underprepared with my glasses and iPhone camera. But even with just my eyes, I understood what Floyd meant by how striking he was, and I found it very difficult to walk away after half an hour of just staring at an owl. Maybe birders are onto something. That said, I would feel uncomfortable with continuing to crowd Flaco’s space. I think this will be the last time I go out looking for Flaco myself, though I will still fawn over photos other people take.
In our conversation, Partridge encouraged people to enjoy the other birds in Central Park. Even before I found Flaco, I found myself looking more carefully at the other birds on my way, especially the common ones I’ve grown accustomed to. Flaco is magnificent, but he’s far from the only wonder of the park. When I asked Partridge what his favorite bird is, he said that right now, it’s the American Woodcock, which is currently visible in Central Park as it stops on its migration North. I didn’t find any on my latest sojourn, but I think I’ll try to see one of those next—from a distance.