Saturday, 25 Mar 2023

How I Became the Metro Desk’s Owl Reporter

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On a chilly Thursday morning this month, I hopped on a Citi Bike in Upper Manhattan and headed to the south end of Central Park. I was in search of a runaway owl.

I’m a reporter (and, sometimes, an editor) on the Metro desk, covering breaking news and general assignments, often in the criminal justice vein. I devote a lot of my energy to grim topics such as arson, dismemberment and, far too often, shootings. It’s not all crime, though: There are free speech issues, academic cheating scandals and the weather. And animals.

In my time on the Metro desk, I’ve reported on Alfie the swan, Happy the elephant, New York City’s pandemic-fueled plague of rats and an owl that turned up in the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center.

Then came Flaco.

It started on the evening of Feb. 2, when someone cut the mesh around an enclosure at the Central Park Zoo where Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl, had lived nearly all of his 13 years. He did what owls do. He flew.

Flaco, it seemed, was the rare animal to leave a zoo enclosure in the city because of intentional harm done by a human. (Others — a cobra, a peahen — had escaped on their own.) The vandalism came amid a spate of such acts at other U.S. zoos.

I was surprised when I logged on to work the next day to discover that we didn’t have a Flaco story in the works. With a little lobbying (some by me), Nestor Ramos, the editor of the Metro desk, rectified that.

Wearing my editor’s hat, I dispatched Lauren McCarthy, who works for the Live desk and sometimes reports for Metro, to the park to get a glimpse of Flaco and to interview onlookers who had gathered in the frigid weather for their own peek. One of my Metro colleagues, Karen Zraick, spoke with the police and zoo officials to report more details. Their article was published within a few hours. There were no immediate plans to do more reporting. The zoo hoped for a quick rescue, fearing Flaco couldn’t fend for himself.

Then a few days passed, Flaco remained at large and I became caught up in his fate.

Maybe it was a fascination with how a captive responds to release. Maybe it was the appeal of yet another animal unexpectedly grabbing New York City’s attention: the Bengal tiger in a Harlem apartment; the cobra, which got its own Twitter account; the Mandarin “hot” duck that appeared in Central Park; Barry the barred owl, who loved attention. For me, the main draw may have been not knowing how Flaco’s sojourn would end.

So I wrote to Nestor: “That bird is still out there. I thought I might stop by Central Park.”

And so on that chilly Thursday, I pedaled down to the park, where the photographer assigned to the story, Jeenah Moon, had found Flaco nestled in a tree. She was the only one there, except for a few zoo workers who were monitoring the owl’s movements.

The lack of a crowd did not dampen my enthusiasm. I have no special interest in birds, but I was captivated by the sight of this regal orange-and-black-striped creature, among the largest of the owl species, perched comfortably on a high branch — out of place and yet right at home.

A few wildlife photographers showed up, and we started talking. After observing Flaco for a couple of hours, I went back to The Times’s Manhattan office and continued to report, making calls to ornithologists, checking on the police investigation and interviewing an official at the conservation group NYC Audubon who is aptly named Dustin Partridge. As I was finishing my article, Flaco was nearly captured in a baited net.

Within a couple of days, Flaco was observed hunting and consuming prey. His essential nature was kicking in. Seeing that Flaco could fend for himself, zoo officials said they would continue to monitor him as they scaled back their retrieval efforts. Flaco had proved his doubters wrong.

To me, that alone was worth another story. Back to the park I went. This time it was warmer out, and Flaco had attracted a bigger crowd. The attention did not seem to faze him.

From there, I moved on to other assignments, and Flaco moved on to other parts of Central Park. Then, last Thursday night, zoo workers tried to capture him again, this time using recorded eagle-owl calls. Flaco wasn’t fooled, and zoo officials said they would “resume recovery efforts if he shows any sign of difficulty or distress.”

Some news outlets took that to mean Flaco was being allowed to live out his days in storybook style in the heart of Manhattan. I’m still not certain that’s true.

Although Flaco has indicated that he can thrive on his own, Eurasian eagle-owls typically live 20 years in the wild, and up to 60 years in captivity. If he remains loose in the park, he could be killed by rat poison or, like Barry the barred owl, in a collision with a vehicle (after ingesting rat poison).

In any case, zoo officials said last Friday that, while backing off, they would “continue monitoring Flaco and his activities.”

Me too.

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