New York’s Flaco the owl had fatal conditions before colliding into building


Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who gained fame after living free in New York City after escaping from captivity, was weakened by rat poison and a pigeon virus to the extent he would have died even if he had not fatally collided with a building earlier this year, a postmortem has found.

Flaco was 13 years old when he was found dead in the courtyard of a building on New York’s Upper West Side on 23 February, with trauma injuries that suggested he had flown directly into the structure.

However, a postmortem by zoo officials has found that the owl had severe underlying conditions that would have likely killed him regardless, and “may have predisposed him to flying into or falling from the building”.

The owl was exposed to four different rat poisons commonly used to control New York’s booming rodent population, the necropsy discovered, as well as pigeon herpesvirus from eating feral pigeons that had become part of Flaco’s diet. Pigeons can carry the virus and remain healthy, but it causes a fatal disease in birds of prey, such as owls, once they consume infected pigeons.

On top of these conditions, which may have finished off Flaco on their own, the owl also had trace amounts of DDE, a breakdown product of the notorious pesticide DDT that was banned in the US in the 1970s due to its harmful impact upon wildlife but which still persists in the environment today. The DDE didn’t contribute to Flaco’s death, however.

The viral infection caused severe tissue damage and inflammation in several organs, including Flaco’s spleen, liver, bone marrow and brain, according to the postmortem.

“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,” the Wildlife Conservation Society, which manages zoos throughout New York City, said in a statement.

The death of Flaco brought an end to a life that captivated many New Yorkers after the owl’s escape from the Central Park zoo in February 2023, after vandals tore a hole in the side of his enclosure. Those responsible for the damage have not been caught by police.

Despite never having lived outside captivity, Flaco was regularly seen swooping upon prey in New York’s Central Park, and was lauded for his ability to survive among the rats, trash and discarded pizza that garland the city.

He weighed 4.1lbs after death, only slightly lighter than at his last recorded weight at the zoo.

Flaco’s death prompted mourning in New York, with people placing flowers and candles in shrines.

This article by Oliver Milman was first published by The Guardian on 26 March 2024. Lead Image: Flaco the owl on 15 February 2023 in New York City. Photograph: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images.

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