A Bad Omen on Fifth Avenue
On the parentage, meanings, and misreadings of Flaco, the Central Park Zoo's escaped Eurasian eagle-owl.
Part I: ‘A Weird Creature of the Night’
“I'm no expert on scatological matters, but Flaco pooped what seemed like a healthy quantity this afternoon, implying he's been feeding.” — @SEaswarNYC, February 10, 2023.
In the winter of the year 43, early in the reign of the emperor Claudius, an enormous eagle-owl appeared in the center of Rome.
The eagle-owl was a death-bird, a herald of doom, and its intrusion into the city was the worst possible omen. The bird “entered the very shrine of the capitol,” Pliny the Elder wrote in his “Natural History,” trespassing into the great temple of Jupiter, Juno, and their owlish daughter Minerva, which overlooked the Forum.
This had happened before, in the year 107 BCE. At that time, in an effort to avert whatever horror the eagle-owl’s appearance foretold, the Roman Republic’s consuls, a general named Gaius Marius and his colleague Lucius Cassius Longinus, had prescribed a ritual purification of the entire city.
In the year 43, confronted with another eagle-owl, Claudius did the same as his republican predecessors. On March 7, Rome once again underwent a ritual purification.
Two thousand years later, in the winter of the year 2023, an eagle-owl appeared in the center of New York City. It landed on 5th Avenue, beside the marble-faced Metropolitan Club; a great temple, more or less, of Morgan, Vanderbilt, and Stanford White. The police tried to shoo the bird into a cat carrier. It remains at large.
As of yet, no purification of the city has been ordered.
The Generations of Flaco the Owl
In October of 1990, an owlet of the species Bubo bubo arrived at a bird sanctuary in Missouri. It’s not clear where he came from; his parents were likely born wild, somewhere across their species’ vast range, which stretches from Spain up to Norway, and across to Siberia, Mongolia, and down into China. The Missouri bird sanctuary named the young owlet Sinbad, and, a dozen years later, began mating him with another owl, a seven-year-old captive-born Bubo bubo named Martina.
You can trace the line of Sinbad and Martina across the ensuing generations in a publication of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums known as the regional studbook, which tracks the familial relations between each individual member of the species Bubo bubo held in North America’s zoos. The Association, an umbrella group and accreditation agency for zoos in the U.S. and beyond, maintains studbooks for hundreds of species held in its members’ zoos; the most recent publicly-available edition of the Bubo bubo studbook dates to 2017.
The story of Sinbad and Martina and their offspring plays out across dozens of pages of charts noting hatchings, names, and the dates of transfers from one zoo to another. One of Sinbad and Martina’s daughters, an owl named Xena, was born in 2002 and sent to a North Carolina bird park, where, by 2017, she herself had hatched fifteen owlets. Her mate, a male named Watson, was also a second-generation captive; all four of his grandparents were imported to Canada from Europe in the mid-to-late 1980s, and were presumably born wild.
Watson and Xena’s owlets were sent to zoos and raptor sanctuaries across the United States. On February 2, one of them, a thirteen-year-old male named Flaco, escaped through a hole cut in the steel mesh of his small enclosure at the Central Park Zoo, just past the exit to the penguin room.
The Grand Duke
Bubo bubo, or, literally, “Owl owl,” is the great owl, the ur-owl, the platonic owl. Taller than two footballs stacked end-to-end, its wingspan matches that of a bald eagle. Compare that to the great horned owl, Bubo virginianus, Bubo bubo’s North American cousin: The Eurasian bird is 70% heavier, its body a third longer. Bubo bubo is known in Spain as the “búho real,” the royal owl, and in France as the “Grand-duc d'Europe.” The Germans call it “der Uhu,” for its hoot. In English, it’s the Eurasian eagle-owl.
The eagle-owl is not a sympathetic bird. Start with its face. There are, among the order Strigiformes, birds with goofy-looking faces, like the barred owl; birds with serene stares, like the snowy owl. The eagle-owl’s face is furious, commanded by orange eyes that convey the impression that it has considered the flavor of your intestines, and knows just how to get at them.
The eagle-owl hunts by night, mostly rats and rabbits and hedgehogs, but also larger animals: young deer, and even small sheep. It swoops down out of the dark, crushing and tearing its prey with two-inch-long claws. “The ancients had them in the utmost abhorrence, and thought them, like the screech owls, the messengers of death,” the Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant wrote in his “British Zoology” in 1766. Pennant’s source seems to have been Pliny, who called the eagle-owl a “funereal bird.”
“It inhabits deserts and places that are not merely unfrequented but terrifying and inaccessible; a weird creature of the night, its cry is not a musical note but a scream,” Pliny writes in “Natural History.” “Consequently, when seen in cities or by daylight in any circumstances, it is a direful portent.”
Pliny relates the eagle-owl’s appearance in Rome in the year 43 as a historical incident, but he himself was a student in Rome at the time, and perhaps he even saw with his own eyes the ominous bird, the terror it spread, and the desperate rituals that followed.
Even writers with a great fondness for other owls describe the eagle-owl with distaste. In T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” Merlin’s shy, amusing companion Archimedes is a tawny owl, a midsized European species with a flat face even funnier than that of the barred owl’s. “Oh, he is lovely,” the Wart says when he first meets the bird.
Later, Archimedes teaches the Wart to fly, and professes a fondness for pigeons; not as prey, but as admirable creatures with noble souls: “The pigeons coo to one another with true love, nourish their cunningly hidden children with true solicitude, and flee from the aggressor with true philosophy,” the tawny owl says.
The eagle-owl in White’s book, meanwhile, is named Grand Duke, presumably after the French. He belongs to the usurper Mordred and his murderous, matricidal half-brothers. Of the Grand Duke’s terrible eyes, White writes: “You hardly liked to look at him. They were red eyes, homicidal, terrific, seeming actually to give out light.”
The Grand Duke himself says nothing.
The Telltale Poop
Flaco’s eyes looked addled that first night on 5th Avenue, wide and absent. A demented old man in a hospital gown, wandering the streets in search of a bar that closed in 1971.
Still, he was able to fly out from the shadow of the Metropolitan Club, and the next morning was spotted in a tree in a wooded portion of Central Park known as the Hallett Nature Sanctuary, just south of the zoo.
There was no reason to believe that Flaco would know how to take care of himself. Before February 2, Flaco had never flown any great distance in his life, never mind hunted his own food. According to the Bubo bubo studbook, he arrived at the Central Park Zoo on May 9, 2010, when he was less than two months old. At the time of his escape, he lived in an enclosure around the size of the half-bathroom in a Upper West Side prewar apartment, with barely enough space for a hop, never mind a flap.
What’s more, it’s likely that Flaco has never even been in the presence of an eagle-owl that has flown free. While I have no details regarding the conditions under which Watson, Xena, Sinbad, Martina, or Watson’s parents, known as owls 35 and 36, have lived their lives, there’s no reason to believe that any of them have ever soared from tree to tree, or flapped across the night sky, or squeezed the life from a rabbit with their talons.
That evening in early February was the first time in more than three decades that Flaco or any of Flaco’s ancestor-owls had spread their wings and flapped away.
Flaco spent his first few days outside his cage sitting high up in a tree in the Hallett Nature Sanctuary. On February 6th, birders spotted him in a tree overlooking the zoo itself, as though he were thinking about giving up and going home to gorge on pre-killed rat, and to doze in his old familiar roost. He stuck near the zoo on February 7th, and then on the 8th flapped back to the nature sanctuary.
On the 9th he had moved to a new spot, near a very large and busy playground at the southern end of the park, and settled in, despite a failed attempt to recapture him that evening by the zoo staff.
The birders who tracked Flaco from tree to tree believed at the time that Flaco had not eaten since his escape on the evening of the 2nd, and the situation seemed dire. It was impossible that the most closely-tracked Strigiform in the hemisphere, who by that point was drawing great crowds of gawkers during the daylight hours and into the night, could have hunted and killed without anyone knowing.
And yet, on February 10, there was a promising sign: Flaco pooped. A birder who posts on Twitter as @SEaswarNYC witnessed the act, characterizing the feces as “a healthy quantity.” The next day brought confirmation that the escaped owl had been hunting: Flaco vomited out the indigestible remains of a rat he had caught while no one was looking.
The eagle-owl had gone feral.
A Brief Digression on the Naming of Eagle-Owls
The 2017 Bubo bubo studbook, which traces the life histories of 312 Eurasian eagle-owls held captive in North America since the 1950s, lists names for many of 134 birds still living at the time of its publication.
Some of the given names are obvious: There’s an Athena, hatched in 2015 and, as of 2017, resident at a zoo in San Francisco; and a Minerva, hatched in 2014 and, as of 2017, resident at a zoo in Cincinnati. There are four eagle-owls named Archimedes, three of which are Flaco’s uncles. Also in the studbook are a Sherlock, two Einsteins, a Jaeger, and a Sheldon. Flaco’s siblings include a Wally, a Khan, a Camo, a Stan, a Boston, an Aurora, and a Morrisey. One of the Einsteins is another uncle of Flaco’s, as are owls named Goblin, Caspian, Kruger, and Ivan.
These names are known as “house names;” lots of zoo animals get them. These house names are generally for the zoo staff, not the public; Flaco’s name wasn’t on the sign by his old enclosure, and the initial press release announcing his escape didn’t mention it, though a caption on the photo that accompanied the release did.
Zoo animals’ house names, when they become widely known, usually do so for unhappy reasons: There’s Gus, the neurotic polar bear who for nineteen years spent twelve hours every day compulsively pushing himself back and forth across his little pool at the Central Park Zoo; Nadia, the Bronx Zoo tiger who got the coronavirus in April of 2020; and Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla shot and killed in 2016 after a kid fell into his enclosure.
Flaco’s name appears to have been given to him at the North Carolina bird park where he was hatched. He already had it when he first went on display at the Central Park Zoo in 2010, according to an announcement the zoo made at the time. We can only guess at why the keepers in North Carolina named him Flaco: Maybe he was a particularly skinny owlet, or maybe a particularly fat one. Maybe Flaco was a keeper’s cousin’s nickname, or their boyfriend’s, and they named the owl in his honor.
It hasn’t hurt Flaco’s public image, I don’t think, that he was assigned a name that reads as friendly, even cute. It’s the same as with Gus: An insane polar bear named “Sweeney,” or “Jack,” or “Sam” would have elicited darker associations. As for Flaco, I suspect we would imagine him differently if he had been named, say, Watson, like his father. And New York City never would have gotten excited about him if he, instead of his younger brother, had been named Boston.
My only serious critique of the names given to Flaco and the various members of his extended family is that Archimedes is an inappropriate name for an eagle-owl, never mind for four of them; that Archimedes the Greek probably hated and feared eagle-owls, and that Archimedes the owl was most certainly not an eagle-owl.
According to the studbook, there are zero Eurasian eagle-owls in North American zoos named the Grand Duke.
The night of February 16, just over two weeks after Flaco’s escape, zookeepers tried again to recapture him, using bait and recorded hoots. They failed, and the next day the zoo more or less suggested it was done trying. The city rejoiced, and that weekend a hundred people at a time gathered to gawk below the tree where Flaco was roosting.
What was it that so enthralled New Yorkers about the fugitive owl? He’s big, he looks cool, he’s got bright orange eyes. But he was big and he looked cool and he had orange eyes when he was in his cage, too, and no one was going to the Central Park Zoo to visit Flaco. Flaco was zoo filler; Flaco was incindental; Flaco was an exhibit you glanced at while you held the door for the toddler walking out of the penguin room behind you.
No, it’s not Flaco qua Flaco that’s obsessed this city. New Yorkers are masters of sublimation, of forgetting, of not seeing what’s staring them in the face, but the subtext of the Flaco narrative should be obvious: Flaco works as a trite pandemic metaphor, and we are slurping it right up.
Think only of the dates: February 10, 2023, Flaco poops. On February 10, 2020, the thousandth person died of Covid-19.
February 18, 2023, a hundred people gathered under Flaco’s tree to watch him doze. February 18, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that anyone who had been on the quarantined cruise ship the Diamond Princess in Japan had to quarantine again before coming back into the country.
By February 25, 2023, Flaco had moved uptown to new hunting grounds in Central Park’s North Woods, leaving the zoo and its vicinity even farther behind. On February 25, 2020, a senior CDC official said on a press call that she had told her family it was time to “start preparing for significant disruption of our lives,” and that people should “think about what you would do for childcare if schools or day cares close.” I listened to a recording of that press call a few hours after the fact, and immediately went on Amazon to try to buy some N95 masks. They were sold out.
We were all thinking about it. In February the pandemic-anniversary articles started coming, and you can’t watch the calendar flip to March these days without remembering that other March. And then here comes Flaco, and it all fits: He was in a cage, a real one, for a lot longer than we were in “lockdown,” or whatever it was, and he’s doing great; he’s killing rats and snoozing in trees and pooping with abandon. And maybe everything’s still a little weird sometimes, and maybe we’re all still a bit locked down in our heads. But Flaco’s doing fine, and maybe we’re going to be just fine; maybe we’ve still got it in us to go fly around and kill rats, or whatever it is we’re meant to be doing, whatever it is we used to do.
Anyway, that’s what’s compelling about Flaco; that’s why everyone’s going to see him, that’s why they’re writing about him in all the fancy magazines, that’s why the Times has published six items about him since he escaped.
But I mean, come on.
‘The utmost abhorrence’
That would be nice if Flaco were a messenger of hope, a symbol of post-pandemic renewal, a herald of some approaching day when it will be like none of this ever happened.
The nature of the eagle-owl, however, is not to serve as that sort of omen. The eagle-owl is a “direful portent.” They are “messengers of death,” their eyes “homicidal.” Flaco does not bring good tidings.
Rome’s ritual purification in the year 43, after the eagle-owl flapped around in Jupiter’s temple, seems to have worked. Cladius, whose predecessor, Caligula, had been murdered by his own guards two years prior, survived another decade before his own murder. The empire took Britain that year, and Rome itself was spared the sack for nearly another four centuries.
I’m not necessarily proposing a ritual purification of New York City, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt? I can’t say I fully understand what the lustration procedure entailed for the Romans; I gather it had something to do with sacrificing an animal and then toting it around for a bit. Maybe we could do that. Slaughter a bunch of goats, maybe a cow or two, pile them up on a flatbed, drive it around the city for a day or so? Send it along the route the marathon takes; make sure it hits every borough. Then send it over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey and, boom, lustrated. Barbecue the goats and the cows on a big grill down at the Ross Dock Picnic Area at the bottom of the Palisades. Invite everyone; have a feast.
I hope Flaco lives. I hope he keeps moving north, to Morningside Park and then Fort Tryon Park and then Inwood Hill Park, and then over the Harlem River to Van Cortland Park, and then up and up and up until he’s deep in the North Maine Woods, hunting moose calves. Or I hope he mates with Geraldine, the great horned owl who lives in Central Park’s Ramble, and they hatch brood after brood of huge, voracious hybrid owls that scour the city of rats and mice and house sparrows. I hope he finds his parents Xena and Watson, and his brothers Boston and Khan and all the rest, and one by one he liberates them from their own enclosures with his awesome claws, his powerful beak; and soon they’re joined by wild, battle-scarred eagles and falcons and hawks, and the flock of avenging raptors crosses the country together, seeking blood and treasure.
I worry, though, for the rest of us, and I can’t help but wonder what’s about to go wrong; what disaster Flaco’s appearance portends. A world war? A plague? A flat tire? It all seems possible!
Maybe that’s just how things are now.
Part II: Five Central Park Zoo Inmates I Would Very Much Prefer Not Escape Their Cages
The huge fruit bats in the steamy jungle room. I hate them, they’re creepy, and I don’t want them flapping around the city, roosting in the eaves of the carousel.
The red pandas. Too cute, would cause pandemonium.
The snow monkeys who live on the rocks in the middle of the zoo pond. They would absolutely thrive in Central Park, just lounging around in the shallows of the lake, eating apples tourists throw them from the rowboats. And then they would have lots of babies, and pretty soon you’d have a situation like you’ve got with the Barbary monkeys in Gibraltar, who harass residents and tourists with absolute impunity, or, more to the point, with the snow monkeys in Yamaguchi, a city in southwestern Japan, who have started sneaking into apartments and attacking people from behind. A city like New York, which has shown zero aptitude for controlling its blossoming rat population, would be no match for a snow monkey infestation. Prepare for snow monkey mobs laying waste to Columbus Circle; robbing hot dogs from Sabrett carts, and perching on the backs of the golden horse/seahorse things atop the memorial to the U.S.S. Maine to throw poop down on shoppers and commuters and the guys selling pedicab rides.
I think the real tough call here is whether it would be worse if the grizzly bears escape, or the snow leopards. The grizzly bears seem like they could do more damage, just on a pound for pound basis; like, if you gave me a stout stick, I feel like I could last a good eight to ten seconds longer against a snow leopard, one on one, than against a grizzly. Still, if the grizzlies got out, I’m pretty sure it would generally be less-bad than if the snow leopards got out. Yes, okay, a few human limbs might get devoured, but those bears aren’t getting far: They’re big and conspicuous, and have you seen the guns the police carry these days?
Liberated snow leopards, on the other hand, seem a more formidable threat. There are three in the Central Park Zoo, two in one enclosure and one in another, and I feel like if any of them got out they would just melt away into the park, and the next time you’d see them they’d be in mid-air, flying out from under a bench, paws aimed for your thorax, jaws aimed for your neck. If a coyote can survive basically unseen in Central Park, why couldn’t a snow leopard? They’d come out at dawn to grab a terrier and a collie for breakfast, then hole back up in one of the park caves to wait for dusk, when they’d venture back out for a bulldog, or maybe a chocolate lab. Or a jogger. All I’m saying is, please keep those cages locked.
Part III: Words of Advice
Just absolutely the greatest New York Times article of the last fifteen years.
“In the winter I’m a Buddhist / And in summer I’m a nudist.” — Joe Gould’s presumably extemporaneous composition “My Religion,” as delivered at a religious-poetry night hosted by the Raven Poetry Circle sometime prior to late 1942, per Joseph Mitchell’s first New Yorker profile of Gould, titled “Professor Sea Gull.”
I have gone on at length about scary animals in this space before; that essay, “Fearsome Beasts,” is here. Other relevant Black Umbrella essays include this one on New York City before the sparrows came, and this one proposing the existence of a great collective avian mind guided by a lineage of dodos hidden in a secret cave on some forgotten island; sightless and sickly after countless inbred generations, but also the keystone binding together an infinite avian oneness. Also this one, on, among other things, ghosts in Central Park.
I know we’ve all moved past this, and everyone has decided that it was really dumb to think in mid-February that there was a non-zero chance that F-22 fighter jets were up there shooting down alien spaceships, but I just want to return for a moment to an argument made repeatedly, in many venues, amidst all of that: That the very fact that F-22’s were able to shoot down the unidentified flying objects necessarily means that those unidentified flying objects were not extraterrestrial in origin. You saw it all over the place: “You idiot, OF COURSE an F-22 can’t shoot down an alien spaceship! Everyone knows this, you absolute nimrod.” What I want to say is this: No, everyone does not know this! This is unknowable! No law of nature decrees that an interplanetary spacecraft must also be impervious to a Sidewinder missile! It’s like saying that humans can build microprocessors and iPhones, and teach computers to compose decent high school essays, and so of course no single-cell protozoa could possibly hurt us. But Plamodium falciparum infects 250 million people with malaria every year, and kills 600,000 of them. The Perseverance rover flew all the way to Mars, but I bet a Martian could smash it to pieces with a heavy boot. Maybe the aliens come in really tiny ships, with guns the size of pins, armored in contemplation of an enemy that also shoots pin-sized guns! Maybe the aliens sent a drone, and don’t mind if it gets blown up! Maybe the aliens take some form so inconceivably different from our own that the damage wrought by a Sidewinder is irrelevant! I don’t know! I have absolutely no idea! Neither do you! Nimrod.
I’ve written recently for Barron’s about the worry that the drugs called biosimilars might not work to lower the cost of high-priced medicines, about new uncertainties in the race to bring the first RSV vaccines to market, about the bad news from Covid-19 vaccine maker Novavax, about the implications of Eli Lilly’s insulin price cuts, and about the retirement of an important FDA executive.
That’s all I’ve got. This week’s images were taken in Central Park in September of 1942 by the photojournalist Marjory Collins for the U.S. Office of War Information, and are held by the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress, in their FSA/OWI Collection.