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Central Park memorial service for Flaco the owl draws huge crowd

A memorial service for Flaco, the Eurasian eagle owl who escaped from his vandalized enclosure at the Central Park Zoo and spent more than a year as a wild bird, drew several hundred fans on Sunday, including speakers who eulogized the apex predator, citing his resilience and underdog quest to live free.

Flaco, who would have turned 14 years old this month, was remembered in poems and songs, as well as heartfelt words from those he inspired with his escapades around Manhattan.

Photographer Jacqueline Emery, who took thousands of pictures of the owl in the wild, told the crowd that the one thing she'll miss most about Flaco is his hooting.

"He was just starting to find his voice. In time his hoots would become louder and more confident," Emery said.

PHOTO: Flaco, a Eurasian eagle owl that escaped from the Central Park Zoo, in Central Park, New York City, Feb. 15, 2023. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images/FILE)
PHOTO: Flaco, a Eurasian eagle owl that escaped from the Central Park Zoo, in Central Park, New York City, Feb. 15, 2023. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images/FILE)

She played a recording made of Flaco once sounding off from the top of a tall building on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Like a voice from the grave, a hooting Flaco came over a loudspeaker, bringing smiles to some mourners and tears to others.

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The large crowd gathered around one of Flaco's favorite oak trees in the North Woods of Central Park, where a makeshift memorial sprang up in the wake of his death. Organizers called the event "Flaco Remembrance Day." The service was even live-streamed, with people viewing it from around the world.

Lynn Johnston, a Manhattan resident, read a letter she wrote for Flaco, recalling how he used to stretch his six-foot wing span while perched in a tree.

"I was surprised to feel such elation," said Johnston. "I'd pump my fist in the air as you eviscerated rat after rat."

New York City musician Jonathan Green performed a song he wrote about Flaco, singing, "Ooh, ooh, Flaco the owl ... upon my roof. Ooh, ooh, Flaco the owl, I'm so like you always wondering who."

Another musician, Elijah Shiffer, also played a song on his saxophone that he said was inspired by Flaco.

Wildlife photographer David Lei told the gathering how he watched with amazement over the year as Flaco taught himself how to survive in America's largest city, recalling how initially the owl appeared to be a clumsy flyer and recalled hearing "a crash of branches everywhere he went."

PHOTO: Flowers, cards, and drawings left at a memorial site in Central Park following the death of Flaco, New York City, Feb. 25, 2024. (Bing Guan/Reuters)
PHOTO: Flowers, cards, and drawings left at a memorial site in Central Park following the death of Flaco, New York City, Feb. 25, 2024. (Bing Guan/Reuters)

"We hoped he would be rescued quickly and uneventfully. But Flaco had other ideas and he transformed himself into a wild bird before our eyes," Lei said.

Broadway playwright Nan Knighton, who on Nov. 14 looked out the kitchen window of her 13th-floor Upper East Side apartment and saw Flaco perched on the narrow ledge staring back at her for three hours, read a poem she wrote about the owl, titled, "A Celebration of Flaco."

"The rooftops are empty. The railings are bare. And no graceful owl is seen cruising the air. There's no gentle hooting to soften the night. No gold-brindled feathers to catch the light," Knighton said, reciting her poem to the crowd.

New York astrologer Breanne Delgado, who officiated over the event, read a long list of words she solicited from Flaco fans to describe the beloved owl, including majestic, joy, inspiring, freedom, heavenly, faithful, warrior, heroic and indefatigable.

MORE: Fans propose statue, legislation in honor of Flaco the owl's legacy

"Just watching his story of resiliency and learning how to be an owl ... really proved that it's safe for all of us to break out of our cages right now and leave the matrix systems that are put in place to disempower us," Delgado said.

Flaco died on Feb. 23 after apparently colliding with a building on West 89th Street in Manhattan, according to a statement from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which runs the Central Park Zoo.

People in the building reported the downed owl to the Wild Bird Fund (WBF). Staff from the WBF quickly responded, but Flaco was nonresponsive and they declared him dead shortly afterward.

MORE: Flaco, the escaped Central Park Zoo owl, proving he can survive outside enclosure

Flaco unwittingly transformed from an obscure bird to a cause célèbre after being reported missing on Feb. 2, 2023, from the cramped Central Park digs that served as his home since 2010, when he arrived in the city as a fledgling from a North Carolina bird sanctuary. The New York Police Department said a vandal cut a hole in the steel mesh lining of the owl's enclosure, enabling Flaco to bolt into the wilds of New York City.

The case remains under investigation, but no arrests have been announced.

Bird experts initially feared that Flaco would not be able to survive on his own and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which runs the Central Park Zoo, initially launched a team to try to recover him by setting traps, chasing him with nets and even playing audio recordings of siren calls from female Eurasian eagle owls.

MORE: Flaco the owl becomes New York's newest tourist attraction, as he settles into Central Park home

But after about a week on the lam, the fugitive fowl taught himself to hunt and perfected his flying skills, prompting zoo officials to halt efforts to catch him, saying in a Feb. 12, 2023, statement, "A major concern for everyone at the beginning was whether Flaco would be able to hunt and eat; that is no longer a concern."

New York City Council member Gale Brewer, who represents the Upper West Side, called Sunday's ceremony for Flaco "wonderful" and said she was impressed by the large crowd that turned out to pay respects.

"Flaco was very exciting to a lot of people," said Brewer, who attended the ceremony, adding she is happy that proposed legislation to protect birds in New York by requiring new or significantly altered state buildings to incorporate bird-friendly designs, particularly in their windows, has been renamed the FLACO Act.

Central Park memorial service for Flaco the owl draws huge crowd originally appeared on abcnews.go.com