Eurasian Eagle Owl | Video Credit: Varunee Somwat, iStock

Celebrity Birds of New York City

New York City has more than its share of celebrity residents. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that the city may also find itself all atwitter because of the presence of avian celebrities. Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk who took up residence on one of Manhattan’s skyscrapers thirty years ago, was the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles, several books, and an award-winning documentary. He was followed in 2018 by a displaced Mandarin Duck, christened “Hot Duck,” and Barry, the barred owl (who was eventually identified as a female).   Barry died when she was hit by a truck, possibly because she was disorientated by the poison ingested from a diet of New York City rats. The most recent celebrity was also an owl, a male Eurasian eagle-owl with a six-foot wingspan named Flaco.

Flaco originally came from a North Carolina bird sanctuary to be one of the residents of the Central Park Zoo. However, he escaped when someone cut protective netting around his enclosure in early February 2023. Flaco took up residence in Central Park and would periodically be spotted perched on ledges, balconies, and air-conditioners of buildings bordering the park. While many Manhattan residents were thrilled to have Flaco in their midst, there were worries that Flaco would, like Barry, quickly succumb to the perils of New York City.

Initially, there were concerns that Flaco could not hunt and feed himself successfully. Early descriptions of Flaco’s progress through Central Park forests talk of him crashing through branches. But Flaco soon looked much more relaxed (his ear tufts were down). It was apparent that he had acclimated to his new home and was having no trouble finding food. The unsuccessful attempts to recapture Flaco and return him to the zoo were halted. His presence in and around the park attracted a devoted following among Manhattan’s human residents (if not the rodents).

However, a year after he escaped from the zoo, Flaco was found on West 89th Street. He had apparently crashed into a window. The Wild Bird Fund, who were called to the scene, found him unresponsive and pronounced him dead. It is possible that, as was reported for Barry, Flaco had ingested enough rat poison that it affected his flight and maneuverability. His death resulted in a special memorial in Central Park attended by a large crowd. The owl was memorialized in poems and songs, and a recording of him calling from one of the Manhattan apartment buildings brought tears to the attendees.

Flaco may also lead to policy changes that would protect all birds. Legislation being proposed to protect birds in New York state requiring bird-friendly building designs has been renamed the Flaco Act!

There is increasing interest in urban biodiversity and resilience. A biodiverse wild animal community helps sustain urban resilience and support the healing effects of natural systems. For example, a study in Germany found that bird species richness was positively associated with life satisfaction across Europe. Another study in Denmark found that children who were exposed to nature grew up to have fewer mental health problems compared to children who were not exposed to nature. The risk of mental illness in adults who, as children, were not exposed to green space was up to 55% higher for several mental diseases. The European Union produced another report in 2023 on the well-being benefits of exposure to nature. The report notes that “green solutions offer a triple win – benefiting the environment, health, and society.”

Finding pleasure from celebrity animals such as mountain lion P22 in California or Flaco the owl in Manhattan may be an unconscious means of improving one’s overall well-being and happiness. The many mourners at Flaco’s memorial in Central Park would most likely agree that their lives have become just a little less fulfilling as a result of his death.

Eurasian Eagle Owl | Video Credit: Varunee Somwat, iStock

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