Why do middle-aged people love birds so much?


I often wonder why birds speak so universally to the sagging middle-aged soul that it has become a comic trope – the vertiginously swift passage from: “Is that a robin?” to: “There’s a lesser yellowleg two hours’ drive away, start the car.”

Is it the freedom they represent? No cholesterol, no mortgage, no self-assessment tax deadline to worry about? Or a sense of wonder in the everyday miracle of their existence, induced by an awareness of mortality?

Whatever it is, I am in deep: disposable income frittered on fat balls; constantly snooping on feathery goings-on in the garden; home decor reminiscent of the Portlandia “put a bird on it” sketch.

I spent Christmas thinking about one bird in particular: Flaco the Eurasian eagle owl (bubo bubo, the best Latin bird name), who escaped from Central Park zoo nearly a year ago. Having obsessively followed his every rat-swallowing, hooting, preening move from a distance, getting a glimpse was my only must-do when I visited New York recently.

I didn’t have an itinerary of hot restaurants or exhibitions; I had a map of recent Flaco sightings. I even contacted one of his most assiduous and talented photographers, David Lei, for tips.

Every day, I puffed my way around Central Park on a bike, scanning every tree, but all in vain. Flaco has become elusive and adventurous, eschewing the park for air-conditioning units and fire escapes, from the East Village to the Upper West Side.

Lei says he waits for “a report of hooting” before heading out to try to track him down. Flaco has been filmed on windowsills, a looming wild marvel in this most human of environments, his vast orange eyes scanning apartments for … what?

Some suggest a mate, in which case he is likely to be disappointed: eagle owls aren’t indigenous to the US. There has even been a suggestion that he might see humans as potential partners, having grown up in captivity.

Would I drop everything if Flaco “suggested nesting sites” to me with his giant fluffy talons, or emitted “staccato notes and clucking sounds” (yes, I have read up on his mating rituals)? Instantly. Middle-aged people and birds: it’s a powerful inter-species love story.

This article by Emma Beddington was first published by The Guardian on 8 January 2024. Lead Image: Above the claw … Flaco in Central Park in February 2023. Photograph: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images.

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