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Flaco on A/C. Photo by Robin Herbst.

Flaco: A Triptych ~ Part 3: Visitation

By David Gessner

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A bird encounter is one thing. An owl encounter is another.
 

Flaco: A Triptych
By David Gessner

Read all three parts of this series:

I have come back to New York to learn more about an owl, but at the moment it is a coyote that is on my mind.

What makes the particular coyote I am searching for special, if not unique, is the patch of earth he has claimed as his territory. Not the deserts and mountains of the West that many associate with his kind, or even the suburban lawns of the East where coyotes have grown comfortable. No, this coyote is currently hiding out in the brambles near the Turtle Pond below Belvedere Castle. Which means that it, and we, are in the middle of Central Park. While coyotes have been seen (and heard howling) in the park before, they are far from a common sight. But just yesterday a bird guide and photographer named Alexandra Wang posted a short video of a coyote, perhaps this one, working its way through the sere grass and phragmites at the west end of the pond near the Delacorte Theater.

It is now two weeks after the death of Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who escaped from the Central Park Zoo. Earlier this morning I met David Barrett, the birder whose X site, Manhattan Bird Alert, was central command during the year that Flaco captured the world’s imagination, at the lookout below the castle. We spent some time chatting while scanning the Turtle Pond, where mergansers and beautiful northern shovelers, with chestnut patches on their wings and resplendent green heads, floated. I recognized the mergansers myself but my new friend, a far better birder than I am, provided the name of the shovelers.

Now we—David, two fellow birders, and me—are standing on the concrete path that runs down from the castle, binoculars up and peering over a short fence into the briars and scrub that grow along this side of the pond. One of the birders, an outgoing and passionately emphatic woman named J.P., has been out here all morning, and she wields a thermal monocular that looks like a small telescope. This device can pick up the heat signature of an animal, and she believes it has done just that with our coyote down in the brambles. She confirms this with her binoculars and then points me toward what she sees.

I adjust my binoculars and search, trying to aim them where she wants me to. What I see through the lens could best be described as a blurry Jackson Pollock.

“You see it?” she asks. “You see it?”

“Kind of,” I say. I don’t want to disappoint her.

When I finally focus, I manage to see an orange patch which I think may be the coyote’s back but will turn out to be a stump. That will be the extent of my coyote interaction today, not exactly the wild encounter I had hoped for.

All our searching and pointing has drawn a little bit of a crowd, which worries J.P. She has reason to be worried. An owl is one thing, but if a coyote is known to be here, or worse, encounters a person, or, worse still, bites a dog or person, it will surely be curtains for that creature. In the East, the eradication of predators is mostly a thing of our bloody past, unless of course the predator steps over the line and hurts us or one of our pets.

J.P. wants to distract or disperse the crowd to prevent this from happening, and the way she does this is to stage an elaborate ruse.

“Nothing here,” she says loudly. “But there are red-winged blackbirds at the overlook. A sure sign of spring!”

As an actor, she makes a fine birdwatcher.

J.P. is understandably excited about seeing the coyote. We all are, David Barrett included. Just the searching for it triggers something surely encoded in Homo sapiens, and we thrill to the idea of the possible wild, in this case the possible urban wild. And yet while this thrill is very real, I think that, today at least, this excitement is about more than seeing a Canis latrans in Central Park.   

I believe there is something compensatory about this feeling. I believe it has grown in part out of a gap, a void.

For the last year my three companions have had a deep purpose in their lives, the very thing most of us lack. Moreover it was a primal purpose, the kind of purpose our species evolved with, the kind that millions of years of trial and error taught us to get excited about. For the last 12 months their lives have been filled with a passionate pursuit, and, better yet, a passionate pursuit of an animal. But just two weeks ago that pursuit ended; and when it did there was a deep sadness. While seeing a coyote in Central Park is undeniably a wonder, it can’t entirely fill what has been lost. Maybe that’s why I sense a dash of desperation mixed in with the thrill.

Something is missing.

For eight months Flaco made Central Park his home and for eight months his followers tracked his every move.

Then, on the night of October 31st Flaco left the park and headed downtown.

David Barrett posted that night:

Spooky and scary Flaco opens wide to try to expel a pellet, hoots, stretches, and hoots some more from his favorite oak tree in Central Park. Happy Halloween!

But over the next six days no one saw the owl. With each passing day Flaco Nation grew more nervous.

Then, at the end of the first week of November, David Barrett got a tip that he had been seen in an enclosed green space near the East Village. After all those months in Central Park, Flaco had flown almost six miles south. Theories as to why he abandoned the park included the noise from a night of fireworks (a theory that was debunked when it became clear the fireworks had occurred after Flaco left) and the fact that he had been persistently mobbed by crows. The most likely theory, and the one that David Barrett believes to be true, was that, after months of fruitless hooting in the park, he was going in search of a mate. Of course what he would learn was that he was the only eagle-owl in New York and that there were no mates to be found.

Flaco was found well-hidden in a tree in the Kenkeleba House Garden on East 2nd Street near Avenue B in the East Village. In late April, two months after Flaco’s death, I visited the garden with my daughter Hadley. Hadley led me to the garden from her dorm, eschewing MapQuest and taking a new New Yorker’s pride in knowing the way. Elsewhere in the city the trees were still in early bloom but at Kenkeleba the season seemed to have jumped ahead. What we found, locked behind a gray gate, was a lush and overgrown forest, only 15 yards wide but three times as deep. It was part secret garden in the midst of the city, but also part Miss Havisham’s, stone steps weaving through an overgrown forest of multiflora rose and shaggy trees covered with vines of oriental bittersweet and English ivy. Two free-standing gray statues that looked just like pictograph figures I’d seen on sandstone walls in southern Utah stood feeble guard over a lush and dissolute landscape. Hadley pointed out a rat scurrying through the underbrush, which, along with all the hidden spaces, suggested why Flaco had favored the place.   

Another stop on Flaco’s East Side tour was only four blocks from Hadley’s dorm. During his stay on the Lower East Side Flaco began perching atop buildings, including co-ops and public housing, his hoots echoing down through the streets. Kids cheered on their new neighborhood mascot.

With Flaco flying through the city itself, his story took on a new appeal, the attraction of the urban wild. I have never lived in New York, but a spring I spent teaching in Boston opened my eyes to the flavor of this particular brand of wildness. Coyote tracks on the talcum of snow on the Charles River, red-tailed hawks nesting below the press box in Fenway, the nests of straw and sticks of a sparrow’s nest drooling out of the mouths of gargoyles atop buildings. Once Flaco had expanded his range beyond the park, he began startling New Yorkers on rooftops and sidewalks, and looking through windows at apartment dwellers, like Riley Richardson who, approaching her curtains cautiously, was at first worried about a peeping Tom. Flaco spent a good part of the next three days perched on her air conditioning unit, staring in, reversing the role he had played at the zoo.

Wildness, like freedom, is a word that often gets waved around without much thought. What does it mean exactly? Is it just something that some of us pagan types give lip service to, paying homage to the long-gone hermit of Concord who said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world”? (And what exactly does that mean, by the way?)

There are multiple definitions of wild, including “lacking discipline, restraint or control, unruly,” and “full of ungovernable intense emotion,” but these, and other frat boy definitions, are not what interests me. “Reckless, risky?” That’s closer, as is: “Random or spontaneous.” Wildness as spontaneous, random, unexpected. As the opposite of planned, determined, controlled, domesticated.

Here we may be edging closer to Flaco’s deeper appeal. I think that there is in each of us a desire to break out of the lives we find ourselves trapped in (even when those lives are safe and, for the most part, good). Those moments when we finally do break out can loosely be called wild moments. We suddenly realize that things aren’t the way we have been telling ourselves they are. We are shaken out of ourselves. Jostled. The rattling hamster wheel of our minds suddenly stills. One part of wildness is surprise, the unexpected. But it is something else too. Something ineffable. Something we crave but have forgotten we crave. Something we have pushed aside, decided not to take seriously, dismissed to our own detriment.

Birdwatching is usually not regarded as a wild experience, despite the places that birding can lead us. But while generally seen as a tame way to pass the time, bird encounters can lift our lives. Watching is not always just watching. You can be captured by the idea of flight, of lifting off, of leaving yourself behind. It doesn’t hurt that this leaving is often accompanied by an internal lift, something close to what we once called ecstasy. Maybe ecstasy is going too far but there is at least a brief release, an internal flight in response to the external one. Birds help us travel to places beyond the walls of the brain. We escape what the biographer Walter Jackson Bate called “the prison cell of self.”

“Strange to have come through the whole century and find that the most interesting thing is the birds,” the Cape Cod nature writer John Hay said to me once while we stood on a beach watching the birds called northern gannets dive from high in the air, slicing into the bay like living lawn darts. “Or maybe it’s just the human mind is more interesting when focusing on something other than itself.”

In turning our eyes beyond ourselves we find not an answer but a mystery, and perhaps an eventual understanding that all we are is a part of that mystery.

Flaco on chain link fence with New York evening skyline
Photo by David Lei, @davidlei.
The two Davids, Lei and Barrett, followed day to day, as Flaco explored his new urban territory:

I’ve spent the evening listening to Flaco’s hoots echo between the coops and public housing buildings of the LES, not far from where I grew up in Chinatown. They remind me of hearing great horned owl hoots echo in the woods.
David Lei
@davidlei

Nov 9, 2023

Friday Flaco Update: Flaco was seen for the second consecutive evening perching and hooting atop an apartment building at the east end of Grand Street (near FDR Drive) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Thursday from 5:30 pm to 7:00 pm.
Manhattan Bird Alert
@BirdCentralPark

Nov 10, 2023

Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl in his Monday resting place in an East Village sculpture garden. He may find that similar places, gardens enclosed by buildings or fences, offer him peaceful sleep amidst a noisy and chaotic urban environment. 
Manhattan Bird Alert
@BirdCentralPark

Nov 11, 2023

Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl checking out someone’s balcony in the Lower East side of Manhattan Thursday night. Perhaps he heard that his cousins in Europe and Asia occasionally nest in balconies.
David Lei
@davidlei

Nov 12, 2023

Here is a map of Flaco’s odyssey:

Map of Flaco's journey in Manhattan
Map courtesy @NatureEnjoyer_.

Then, on November 13th, Flaco briefly fell off his followers’ radar again. As it turned out he was making his way back north to Central Park, where his return home would be celebrated by his followers. On November 15th he would spend some time on a backyard air conditioning unit of a Fifth Avenue apartment, and that evening David Barrett would see him fly back into the park.

But before he returned, he made one very important stop, one that is central to the Flaco myth.

It is raining hard the night after my morning coyote hunt when I descend into the subway in Union Square and head uptown. My destination is the Fifth Avenue apartment of the playwright Nan Knighton. If David Barrett was the intentional leader of the Flaco year, Nan was the accidental star. She still relishes November 14, 2023—the afternoon of her visitation from the owl.

Nan knew nothing of the bird before it landed on the ledge outside her kitchen window. After that day she, like so many people both in New York and around the world, became obsessed with the owl.

Nan is still in mourning when I visit her. Mourning is not an exaggeration.

Nan and I texted yesterday and found that we had a lot in common. For one thing, we are both writers, and that is something of a relief. So far I have been interviewing mostly birders, who are articulate enough when it comes to talking about bird markings and ID but curiously inarticulate when it comes to what their encounters with birds might mean. When I bring up aspects of environmental philosophy or the meaning of wildness they just stare at me for a minute before showing me a picture or returning to describing what Flaco was doing on a certain day.

I love birds but I am not a birder, and I have always had some ambivalence, and perhaps a little reverse snobbery, toward birding. There were two reasons for this ambivalence. One, it is a sport that I, with my tin ear and short attention span, am not very good at. And two, it sometimes seemed contrary to the spirit of wildness that had drawn me to birds in the first place. But over the years my prejudice has slackened. I have spent a lot of time with expert birders and have become very impressed with their observational talents, their ears and eyes, basically what you might rightly call their hunting skills. When I am with these people I mostly keep my mouth shut, deferring to their expertise and talents.

Nan is not a birder. She gives me a big hug when I come in the front door of her apartment, then immediately apologizes for the hug. I get it. On the one hand we don’t know each other. On the other hand… Flaco.

“I told my kids that other than their births it might have been the greatest day of my life. That irritated them. ‘What about our childhoods?’ they asked.”

She says this with a laugh and then leads me into the apartment, which is exactly the sort of spectacular you might expect given its Fifth Avenue address, overlooking the park and reservoir. To my delight, there are books everywhere.

The kitchen where we are soon standing is where it happened. Right behind us at the window.

Nan stands at the counter.

“I was right here and I’d just gotten off a phone call so I had my phone in my hand, and I looked up and there was an owl in the window. An owl in the window! I saw mainly his head. He was on the ledge below but he was a really tall bird. And I just started to laugh because it just seems wonderfully absurd. And because I love animals so much—I’ve heard some people say oh, it was scary—but my reaction was, well, delight.”

She laughs at the memory.

“And I didn’t want him to fly away. We get red-tailed hawks that come to the front side of the building and land on the balustrades, and if you get near them, they fly away right away. I thought I should get a picture of this guy because he was going to fly away. So I gradually got closer and he didn’t fly away. He was letting me get closer to closer.”  

It was around noon, closer to 12:30, when she first saw Flaco.

“I spent some time calling the Wild Bird Fund because I thought he might be stuck. I knew nothing about owls. I basically had never seen an owl close and so the whole thing was just crazy and wonderful and I kept thinking, He’s gonna fly away, he’s gonna fly away, and so the whole time I get closer and closer and he’s just looking at me and it was incredible.”

Flaco as first seen through Nan Knighton's window.
Photo by Nan Knighton, @nanknighton.

Around the corner from the kitchen is a little nook with a desk that she uses as a study, and from there she could get a full view of the owl.

“When I went into the office I would call back ‘Here, boy, here boy,’ and his neck would swivel to see what I wanted. I know it was silly. As if he were a dog.”

From the office you can also see more clearly that the window Flaco perched on looked out at a small courtyard, the kind he had begun to seek out to rest during the day. Enclosed spaces like that allowed him to feel safe while he closed his eyes.

Flaco on windowsill. Photo by Nan Knighton.
 Photo by Nan Knighton, @nanknighton.

The owl stayed three hours. She would go back and forth from the office to the kitchen because Oh my god an owl on the 13th floor in New York City.

“I wish I’d seen him fly off.”

Nan took five short videos of her encounter. The videos went viral.

I wish I’d seen him.

A month after his death I visited the bird sanctuary in North Carolina where Flaco was born and spend a couple of hours staring in at a pair of caged Eurasian eagle-owls. Beautiful birds that stared right back at me as I peered into their cage. But it wasn’t the same. I could never quite get there. There were bars between us. There was no electric current. Remember: all is context.

I wish I had seen him.

Our two species share forward-facing eyes. Owls are the only birds with binocular vision. Vision is vital for both species. We want to see. When Nan had stared out her window, Flaco had stared back.

What was it like to be in her kitchen, that most domestic of rooms, and be visited by the wild? A kind of everyday transcendence, a quotidian epiphany. A visitation is, according to my dictionary, “the appearance of the divine or supernatural.” Flaco was not divine or supernatural but for Nan this was surely a visitation.

Later she wrote this about the owl:

He’d been winging round the city all that time,
Mostly on the Upper West Side (though there was a rather mysterious trip to the East Village.)
And then he came to me.

“He came to me.” Silly. He came to a window ledge. Any window ledge. No. Mine.

He came to me. Hard not to be jealous. How we all wish he had come to us. But that is not the nature of these things. Thousands went in search of Flaco, but Flaco had come to her. “Blessed” is not one of my favorite words, but it is a word that many people used to describe Nan’s good fortune, and it seems to fit well enough.

I have never had an owl visit me at home, but I have had my own owl encounters.

I relish them.

A bird encounter is one thing. An owl encounter is another. I have studied raptors, ospreys in particular, for close to 30 years, and I thrill whenever I see one. But among bird encounters, owl encounters are unique. Stealth is part of that difference and with stealth comes surprise. I remember walking down a sloping hill through the woods near the Wachusett Reservoir in central Massachusetts. The sun had just set and darkness was coming in gulps, the crepuscular light lending an eerie feel even before something, some presence, flew over my shoulder. Huge and silent, that presence clarified itself into a great horned owl. Its approach had been nearly soundless and it had gotten very close, as if considering having me for dinner. After it flew a few feet over my head, it dropped further with the slope of the land, flying low as the trail led downhill.  

Or how about this: one January day I was walking the beach near my house on Cape Cod, a beach so tiny and domestic it was locally known as “the little beach.” It wasn’t little that day. The bay was frozen for a quarter mile out and geysers of salt water were spraying upward through cracks in the ice like the spray of spouting whales. The domestic had turned primal and as I reached the beach, I saw sitting there in the tundra, unperturbed, a messenger of the primal. A snowy owl, far from home, stared up at me with black slits for eyes, the ocean wind blowing its white feathers back like a boa. It was less than ten yards away and didn’t feel like moving, so it just sat here, looking both spectacular and perfectly at home on a beach that on that frigid day truly resembled the tundra where it spent its summers. Having come down for a visit from the Arctic it seemed to have brought that region along with it.

The owl appeared to be wearing a shining white robe, though the robe was flecked dark with brownish markings the color of chips on a cinnamon scone, likely marking it as a female. As she swiveled, her great disc of a face transformed itself, one moment a white lion, the dashes of black for bill and eyes a mere cartoon outline, the next more hawklike and predatory as she lifted a handlike talon to scratch herself, and then, when her eyes turned entirely away, a featureless white dome. Mostly she squinted in the wind but when her eyes re-opened they shone yellow.

Her tail feathers blowing behind her like streamers in the heavy wind, the snowy seemed made for spectacle. She had presence.

Flaco on an a/c unit. Photo by Sarah Bramwell.
Photo by Sarah Bramwell.
Nan and I take our drinks to the living room where the windows stare out at Central Park and the reservoir. Across the park shine the lights of the Upper West Side, where Flaco spent his last days.

We sit across from each other and talk for a good while about books before getting back to birds.

“That brief encounter transformed into a deeper affection,” she says. “I got up at 4:00 a.m. that night and went to the library and sat on the couch. I watched the videos and looked at the pictures. I realized that I missed him so much. It was strange but I thought: I’ve fallen in love with an owl.

“I missed that surreal, wondrous, exciting, and funny time with him. I still do. It was like being lovesick. It was that strong, like being lovesick, and it remained that way for quite a while.

“This all happened right before Thanksgiving. And at Thanksgiving I’d catch my kids looking at each other across the room and almost laughing. And I would ask, ‘What is it? What is it? ‘And they would say, ‘Well, you sure talk a lot about Flaco.’”

Sometimes it seemed like the only person who really knew how she felt was David Barrett.

“I reached out to David. I could share the whole experience with him. And he immediately saw that I was in love with this owl. And so there was this immediate identification with each other. Every day David would let me know what was going on because every night he would be out there. Pretty soon we were texting all the time.”

She began to follow his Manhattan Bird Alert and spend time on X following the followers of the bird.

“The first time I posted, I put up a picture of Flaco at my window, and the phone started going beep, beep, beep, beep as people responded. It was completely unnerving to me. Thousands and thousands of people were responding. I couldn’t keep my phone anywhere near me. And so I deactivated my account with Twitter because it was making me nuts.”

But she kept in touch with David, and he kept giving her daily updates.

“It was always me and David Barrett. It’s so funny because David and I both stay up late. We discovered really early on that we were both that way, and, you know. We were like owls. Yes, exactly, like owls. I usually stay up until 2:00. And he apparently does, too. David and I, you know, there was this really intense relationship because of the sharing of the owl. And we never met. We just texted. But I was feeling like he was a really close friend.”

She puts down her drink and looks over at me.

“So I knew when he texted me that morning it was bad. I was texting David back and forth and saying, Oh my god. No, no, no, no, no. In his first text he told me Flaco was hurt but still alive. You know I mean he was only alive for apparently a couple of seconds. And then David posted Flaco has died and I was shocked and stunned but it wasn’t until a couple days later that I started to cry and then I really cried.”

It is a feeling of loss she hasn’t been able to shake.

“Not long ago, Frank, the composer I work with, sent me a new melody. He’s doing an album of jazz standards, so he sent me this melody, and I wrote this lyric, and I sent it back to him. And he said ‘This isn’t quite what I had in mind for a jazz standard.’ And I read it over and I realized that what I had written was a love song to Flaco. I mean it really was, it was a love song to an owl.

“I realized that there was this huge cave inside of me that… I remember thinking it’s like a bullet hole. It was like an empty spot. And I remember writing to David, ‘Well, if I have a bullet hole, you have a vast heart hole.’”

Flaco on building corner. Photo by David Lei.
 Photo by David Lei, @davidlei.
“February 16th was the last time I saw him,” David Barrett told me.  

Flaco’s every move was tracked, almost to the very end.

“People I know saw him again on the 17th, but didn’t get any photos of him,” Barrett continued. “He was on his favorite water tower again that night. He was heard on the 18th and recorded on the water tower that morning. Then on the 19th another person got photos of Flaco on an Upper West Side building, though those weren’t shared until after Flaco’s death, and then after that I think we no longer have any photographic evidence or any aural evidence of his hooting. No one saw him or heard him after the night of the 19th, though we tried hard and I went out searching for him and so did other people at his usual places and we couldn’t find him on those successive days beginning the 19th and following. So we didn’t know what was going on with Flaco. We thought he might have gone somewhere else in the city. Because he likes to explore. We didn’t know and we were basically out of touch with his location until the time we got news that he had been found extremely ill or injured.”

Flaco had been spending time in Upper West Side courtyards and he was found in the courtyard of a building on West 89th Street. The residents contacted the super and the super contacted the Wild Bird Fund on the night of the 23rd of February. Not long after that he was retrieved and declared dead.

The result of the initial necropsy, performed by Bronx Zoo pathologists, was “death due to acute traumatic injury,” with the main impact being to the body not head, though there was some small bleeding behind the left eye. They report stated that Flaco had good muscling and adequate fat stores, and basically weighed the same (4.1 pounds) as he had the last time he was weighed at the zoo.

From the start the story was that Flaco hit a building, a story that has persisted, right down to a Saturday Night Live skit starring Flaco’s widow. Buildings were the original culprit, editorials written, with the New York State legislature even renaming a proposed bird-collision law “Flaco’s Law.” But while it’s true that buildings kill thousands of birds, and that anything that might lessen this toll is admirable, many Flaco followers, including David Barrett, were skeptical about a building collision being the cause of death. The fact that there were no massive injuries to Flaco’s head argued against the collision theory. And for several days before his death he had ceased hooting, which suggested to David that he had grown sick, and potentially fallen from atop a building. 

“The autopsy confirms that Flaco was seriously ill with pigeon herpes, a disease that in these owls is 100 percent fatal within three to four days from onset,” said David. “This explains why he ceased hooting in the days preceding his death. His fall from atop the building was a consequence of his strength and balance finally giving out.” 

The full necropsy, again conducted by Bronx Zoo pathologists and released a month later, revealed that, along with suffering from pigeon herpesvirus from eating feral pigeons, Flaco was also chock full of rodenticide, the poisons laid out for New York City rats. The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, concluded: “Flaco’s severe illness and death are ultimately attributed to a combination of factors—’infectious disease, toxin exposures, and traumatic injuries—that underscore the hazards faced by wild birds, especially in an urban setting.”  

I’m not sure what can be done about pigeon herpes, but rodenticide is another matter. The poison kills many city birds, including hawks and other raptors, but it is not just a city problem. I reached out to author and ornithologist Scott Weidensaul, who wrote the Peterson Reference Guide to Owls of North America and the Caribbean and who has worked extensively with snowy owls through the research and conservation effort Project SNOWstorm. Stressing that this was just a preliminary analysis and that it is possible the numbers and percentages may change as Project SNOWstorm completes the statistical work, Scott wrote:

Since 2013, Project SNOWstorm’s wildlife veterinarians have assessed rodenticide levels in the livers of 196 snowy owls that died from various causes, and were salvaged by state or federal agencies and licensed rehabilitators. Thirty-five percent of those owls showed quantifiable levels of anticoagulants, meaning more than trace levels. It’s difficult to determine what a dangerous level of these very potent toxins is for a raptor, since it varies by sex, age, body size, and physical condition, but research suggests that anything over just 0.03 ppm can lead to death. Of the owls we’ve tested, 44 birds, or 22 percent, were over that threshold, and almost all of those owls (93 percent) showed signs of internal bleeding, even those that had no other sign of trauma or injury.

What’s even more worrisome, the percentage of snowy owls with rodenticide levels above the presumed mortality threshold has risen dramatically in the decade since we began this work—from near zero in 2013 to 56 percent in 2022. The extent to which this may reflect a growing exposure to rodenticides, or some other factor, is more than we can say at the moment. But it’s clear that snowy owls are facing a significant toxicological risk when they come south from the Arctic for the winter.

In the wake of Flaco’s death, there has been much pointing of fingers, the usual online scoldings, critics adding a dark moral to the uplifting story. It has been suggested that having so many people follow him stressed the bird, though certainly nowhere near as much as the stress caused by mobbing crows or harassing hawks or even the smaller birds that tormented him. In the zoo’s eyes at least, the real culprits are clear. In their initial statement immediately after Flaco’s death, they wrote, “The vandal who damaged Flaco’s exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death. We are still hopeful that the NYPD, which is investigating the vandalism, will ultimately make an arrest.”

Some claim that Flaco’s death and the grim necropsy cast a pall over the whole Flaco fable. And perhaps it does.

But a fable can mean more than one thing.   

Flaco memorial
A makeshift memorial at the base of one of Flaco’s favorite oaks in Central Park.
Photo by Ben Von Klemperer, courtesy Shutterstock.
I am becoming crepuscular.

At least for today.

Another month has passed and spring has bloomed and I am back in New York. It is dawn when I begin my journey, starting by paying homage to the tulip tree where Flaco spent his first free night, across from the Plaza and Bergdorf Goodman, and then heading into the park to the Hallet Sanctuary, the small sky island backed by skyscrapers where he spent his second. A crowd of followers were already staring up at him that first morning, and if you are of a certain mindset it is easy to be critical of their voyeurism, of the funhouse mirror aspect of the Flaco story. But after weeks of talking to those who followed Flaco, I am convinced of their passion. Many cried when the owl died. Many use the word “love.” This might strike some as sentimental but I am thinking of another word. In his brilliant manifesto, The Abstract Wild,  Jack Turner mourns a different kind of loss, that of our lack of deep connection with animals. He writes, “To reverse this situation we must become so intimate with wild animals, with plants and places, that we answer to their destruction from the gut. Like when we discover the landlady strangling our cat.”

You can argue about whether Flaco was wild or not, but for many there was a visceral connection. And those many were part of a community. Nan wasn’t the only one who experienced the jolt of the unexpected. Of course, since we are human beings, we quickly make the bird fit our own narratives, reshaping his story into ours. Raw experience is hard on humans. Flaco himself was perhaps the only one who experienced real wildness, however briefly, though fear, trepidation, and anxiety were all part of that wildness. It wasn’t ever as simple a story as the one the newspapers told.

Light is returning to the world as I make my way through the park, following Flaco’s route over those first weeks. I walk north past a statue of Shakespeare, who stares broodingly down at some tulips. Then I enter the Ramble, its winding paths transformed by the gloaming, which gives it the feel of a real woods.

I’ve been alone for most of my walk, but now someone is coming toward me. I notice that he has the same type of binoculars that I do, minus the duct tape, and so I say hello and ask him if he ever saw Flaco.

He says that yes, he has. In fact he was there the very first night.

It is one of those coincidences that always seem to happen when you throw yourself into stories. That is, when you get obsessed. 

He tells me his name is Edmund Berry and I laugh and tell him I recently quoted him in an article. I ask about that first night.

“I wasn’t used to seeing a bird in that state. He was sitting on the sidewalk with police and crowds around him. It totally takes you out of the situation. It’s not like seeing a bird in a tree.”

The rest of the onlookers dispersed after Flaco flew south. But Edmund thought, I can’t go. He knew he had to stay and watch. He followed Flaco as he flew down to the Pulitzer Fountain and the Plaza and Bergdorf Goodman. Alone now, he stared up at the owl perched in his tulip tree. Later David Lei showed up and joined him.

“I couldn’t leave,” Edmund tells me. “I just had to watch him. It was incredible. And so was watching the whole city soon come to the same realization: We can’t go. We have to stay. We have to see what happens.” 

After we part, I find a small dark corner of the Ramble and sit on a rock ledge and stare at water running over stone. Yesterday I went on a tour with a birding group and saw dozens of birds, but that didn’t match my experience at the end of the day when, alone in the North Woods, a black-and-white warbler with gleaming racing stripes flew right by me. I had been waiting to meet a Flaco follower named Sandra and when she arrived she told me about an earlier evening when, at dusk, she experienced Flaco flying right by her head in those same woods. She felt the wind of his wings as he passed.

Flaco in tree. Photo by Ruben Giron.
Photo by Ruben Giron.

Later today I will walk up to the north end of the park and watch ospreys dive in the Harlem Meer, but for now I want to be alone.

I think: how lucky for Sandra, for Edmund Berry, for Nan, for David Barrett and David Lei, for hundreds of others, thousands really, on the ground and online, to have Flaco come into their lives. To be lifted out of the ordinary.

Who wouldn’t want that? Who doesn’t hunger for encounters beyond ourselves?

We all want to touch a world beyond our own. For a brief moment.

It seems one of the best things on earth.

To reach out of our caged world and touch a wilder one.
 

Read Flaco: The Triptych ~ Part 1: The Escape and Flaco: The Triptych ~ Part 2: Evolution.

 

 

David GessnerDavid Gessner is the author of A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World: Tales of Fire, Wind, and Water, Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight: Sheltering with Thoreau in the Age of Crisis, Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness, and The New York Times-bestselling All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. on the faculty of the Creative Writing Department at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and founder and editor-in-chief of Ecotone, Gessner lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, the novelist Nina de Gramont, and their daughter, Hadley.

Read David Gessner’s Walks and Talks with Dave (and Henry) series, as well as “Abandoned Homes: A Triptuch” (an excerpt of A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World), “Grizzled,” “Making a Name: Wallace Stegner,” and “Edward Abbey at Havasu,” all appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo of Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl by Robin Herbst, @RobinHerbstPapa. Photo of David Gessner by Debi Lorenc.

Terrain.org is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.