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An owl that escaped from the Central Park Zoo is still loose — and hunting on his own

Flaco, the owl that escaped the Central Park Zoo in New York City nearly two weeks ago, is still on the loose. But zoo officials now say a big concern has been alleviated: Flaco is hunting for himself.

The zoo had been worried that the Eurasian eagle owl wouldn't be able to find its own food because he's used to captivity.

The owl escaped on Feb. 2 after someone cut the stainless steel mesh on his exhibit. The zoo called it "a deliberate criminal act which jeopardizes the safety of the bird" and said it's under investigation by the New York Police Department. No suspects have yet been identified.

Zoo officials have been watching the bird closely since his escape, as he spends his days in Central Park.

Watchers "have seen a rapid improvement in his flight skills and ability to confidently maneuver around the park," the zoo said on Sunday.

The zoo said officials are no longer concerned about his ability to hunt and eat.

Scott Weidensaul, an author who researches owls, says he's "really not surprised that Flaco's been able to get in touch with his ancient Eurasian eagle owl ancestors and start doing what owls have been doing for millions and millions of years," even though he might not be as good of a hunter as a wild owl.

Eurasian eagle owls mostly eat small mammals, and Flaco has been known to favor rats. But they would take opportunities to eat other kinds of prey, like birds, Weidensaul tells NPR.

While Eurasian eagle owls can go weeks without food in some circumstances, bird metabolisms are high, and the hunger pangs by day four or five likely served as a good incentive for Flaco to figure out hunting.

The zoo has tried to recapture Flaco by luring him to familiar food — dead rats — which hasn't worked so far.

"Birds are delicate animals" with hollow bones and easily broken feathers, Weidensaul says. "They're also significantly armed" with huge and powerful talons, so chasing Flaco around with nets could harm both the bird and the humans involved, the researcher adds.

The zoo said Flaco "seems to be comfortable in the area of the park where he has been hunting, and we don't want to do anything to encourage him to leave this site," but he still faces potential challenges.

One of the main risks Flaco faces is rat poisoning, since he's been eating rats in an urban environment, Weidensaul says.

Rat poison is "certainly capable of killing a bird," he says, "but even at sublethal levels, there are health problems." Because rat poisons are anticoagulants, owls that eat them may bleed from cuts that would otherwise heal.

Flaco could also fly out of the park at any time, "and there's a world of traffic out there," Weidensaul says.

Getting the owl back into captivity isn't just good for his safety. It's also good for the ecosystem of Central Park.

"I'd hate to have" a large, non-native owl "occupying space in Central Park where native owl species might conceivably, eventually be able to establish themselves," Weidensaul says.

The zoo will continue to monitor Flaco, though not as intensively. Birders have been watching the owl since his escape, and the zoo says it's confident it'll be able to track his movements.

"We thank everyone who is pulling for the eagle owl's safe recovery and understand the importance of good birding etiquette while observing and photographing him," the zoo said.

The NYPD's 19th Precinct tweeted on Feb. 2 that police had found the owl on the sidewalk on 5th Avenue soon after his escape, but "he had enough of his growing audience & flew off" into Central Park, where he's been since.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaitlyn Radde
Kaitlyn Radde is an intern for the Graphics and Digital News desks, where she has covered everything from the midterm elections to child labor. Before coming to NPR, she covered education data at Chalkbeat and contributed data analysis to USA TODAY coverage of Black political representation and NCAA finances. She is a graduate of Indiana University.
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