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Death of beloved New York City owl, Flaco, in apparent building collision devastates legions of fans

Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped from New York City’s Central Park Zoo and became one of the city’s most beloved celebrities as he flew around Manhattan, has died, zoo officials announced Friday, Feb. 23. Associated Press File Photo

NEW YORK — Tributes poured in Saturday for Flaco, the beloved Eurasian eagle-owl that became a feel-good New York story after escaping its Central Park Zoo enclosure and flying free around Manhattan.

Flaco was found dead on a New York City sidewalk Friday night after apparently flying into a building. It was a heartbreaking end for the birders who documented the owl’s daily movements and the legions of admirers who eagerly followed along.

“Everybody feels the same, they’re devastated,” said Nicole Blair, a New York City artist who devoted much of her feed on the X platform to photos and memes featuring the celebrity owl with checkerboard black and brown feathers and round sunset-hued eyes.

Staff from the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center, declared Flaco dead shortly after the collision. A necropsy was expected on Saturday.

The normally vocal owl whose hours of hooting became a nightly song in the Upper West Side had been quieter in the days before his death, said David Barrett, who runs the Manhattan Bird Alert account on X and tracked reports of the owl's activities.

Barrett had wondered whether Flaco had gone off to explore other neighborhoods, but news of the death made him suspect he had become ill, he said Saturday.

“He hadn't gone anywhere. He was just being quiet in his old neighborhood and that, I say, suggests he was not well, he was not feeling up to hooting,” Barrett said.

Flaco was freed from his cage at the zoo a little over a year ago by a vandal who breached a waist-high fence and cut a hole through a steel mesh cage. The owl had arrived at the zoo as a fledgling 13 years earlier.

Flaco sightings soon became sport. The majestic owl with a nearly 6-foot wingspan spent his days perched on tree branches, fence posts and fire escapes and nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city’s abundant rats.

Like a true celebrity, the owl appeared on murals and merchandise. A likeness occupied a spot on Blair’s New York City-themed Christmas tree, right next to “Pizza Rat,” the infamous rodent seen in a YouTube clip dragging a slice down a subway stairwell.

“I got to see him on my birthday," Blair said of her encounter with Flaco in Central Park in the fall. “It was kind of an unbelievable situation, and I'm like, this is the best birthday present ever.”

But she and others worried when Flaco ventured beyond the park into more urban sections of Manhattan, fearing the owl would ingest a poisoned rat or be killed in traffic.

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

Flaco fans on Saturday shared suggestions for a permanent bronze statue overlooking New York City. One requested that the owl's remains be buried in Central Park.

“Flaco the Owl was, in many ways, a typical New Yorker — fiercely independent, constantly exploring, finding ways to survive ever-changing challenges,” read a post on the X platform, reflecting a common sentiment. “He will be missed.”

Barrett said visitors were dropping by a temporary memorial at the owl's favorite oak tree in the park to lay flowers and share memories.

“Seeing an owl at all is special,” he said. “Seeing an owl well, consistently day after day, that’s quite a special thing. And that’s something Flaco delivered.”

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