Is ‘Instinct’ Really Keeping Flaco the Owl Alive? – DNyuz

Is ‘Instinct’ Really Keeping Flaco the Owl Alive?

It sounds like something out of Aesop’s Fables: A captive owl escapes from the zoo into the big, scary city. Everybody doubts that the owl can feed himself and takes care of his own needs . That bird is Flaco, a Eurasian eagle-owl that fled the Central Park Zoo earlier this month after vandals cut his wire-mesh enclosure. He quickly won over New Yorkers’ hearts, becoming a symbol of freedom and terrorizing the park’s rodents.

Flaco has wide, piercing eyes set in a bold brow; a broad chest; and a majestic, tigerlike swirl of sienna-and-black feathers. When he curls up in the sun or closes his eyes as his ear tufts bend in the breeze, he transforms into an unfathomably fluffy rabbit. He is, as Walt Whitman once wrote of New York City’s workers, “well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes.” He belongs to one of the world’s largest owl species, whose wings can span six feet. But despite his heft and allure, Flaco’s freedom initially seemed precarious, even unwise. He came to the zoo before he was a year old, in 2010, and his caretakers and many onlookers feared that he had never hunted before, or had forgotten how. But Flaco started coughing up pellets within days. This was a clear sign that Flaco was eating. People saw Flaco clutching dead rats shortly after. Citing his surprising ability to survive on his own (and the fact that he was too smart for them to catch), last Friday the zoo abandoned its efforts to recapture Flaco. News reports attributed his hunting to his “survival instincts,” “killer instincts,” and “hunting instincts“–a victory of Flaco’s “ancient” ancestry over modern confinement. But recent science suggests instinct is really a fable, a fiction we tell ourselves because it sounds nice. It’s not the only thing that allows Flaco to live.

Instinct has always been a slippery concept. Charles Darwin refused to define the word, writing, “Everyone understands what is meant, when it is said that instinct impels the cuckoo to migrate and to lay its eggs in other birds’ nests.” The modern notion of instinct dates back to the 1930s, when scientists first began sustained research of animal behavior in a natural context, or ethology. Instinct broadly describes innate, inherited, preprogrammed behaviors in animals, and has been very influential in biology and the study of development; the 1973 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to a group of scientists known for their work on instinct. Migrating birds, baby sea turtles orienting themselves toward the ocean, and even newborn humans displaying an understanding of numbers have all been described as acting on instinct.

Yet today, some researchers consider instinct a dirty word–a murky, even lazy label that obstructs investigations into how behaviors develop. Scott Robinson, director of Pacific Ethological Laboratories told me instinct can be likened to the Cheshire Cat. It’s clear at first, but it becomes blurred and fades as you get closer. Ethologists and developmental psychologists complain that the term could refer to an ability present at birth, a skill learned before it is used, a trait encoded in DNA, or something else entirely–scientists don’t specify and thus don’t investigate. “Instinct is just a label, and it obscures the underlying complexity of things,” says the University of Iowa behavioral neuroscientist Mark Blumberg. “And it obscures their origins. It’s easy to assume that it is instinctive. But, this description rarely stands up to close scrutiny.

In the past few decades, the attribution of several animal behaviors to instinct has been debunked. Biologists once thought that chicks responded to their mother’s calls because they naturally recognized her voice; later, scientists realized that baby birds start learning their species’ sounds by vocalizing while still in the egg. Researchers were able to manipulate eggs so that babies respond to different species’ calls if the eggs are silenced. Rats were assumed to land on their feet after a fall thanks to instinct, until some space-reared pups fell on their back: Gravity, not genetics, appears to be responsible for self-righting. Being born on Earth is, perhaps, a sort of inheritance–but it’s not instinct.

We don’t have many details about Flaco’s upbringing or life in captivity, and the Central Park Zoo declined an interview. Stephanie Ashley (curator of birds at The Peregrine Fund), says it is not clear if Flaco was taught to hunt prey by another bird. Data show that various predators raised in captivity are at higher risk of starvation, which is why sanctuaries typically teach injured or captive birds of prey to hunt before releasing them. Zoos often feed rodent carcasses and other animal corpses to birds of prey. Flaco may not have known about rat-catching until this month. However, instinct might be an appealing explanation for his rapid mastery. Ashley explained to me that owl hunting involves both instinct and studying. The birds are hungry and need to be taught how to do it.

Maybe Flaco had some experience hunting in the wild before he entered the zoo. Maybe rats snuck into his enclosure from time to time, giving him at least some opportunity to practice hunting them. Flaco appeared to be leaving the zoo because he had a penchant to hunt rats. Staff baited Flaco with a trap that contained a white lab mouse , but Flaco was able to escape and get away. Maybe it was hunger or the smell of rodents that led Flaco to take aim at unsuspecting vermin. Also, catching rats in New York City isn’t exactly the hardest skill for an owl to learn, even if he’s never seen it done: Rodent sightings doubled in the city in 2022. Flaco is surviving “thanks to the great abundance of rodents in Central Park,” says David Barrett, a birder who closely tracks the owl and runs a Twitter account that posts frequent updates. Flaco has shown remarkable improvement in his hunting skills with each catch, which is another sign that he is learning.

Hunting is not the only skill typically described as “innate” that Flaco’s long captivity denied him. Early on, flying proved a struggle: On his first night out, according to Barrett, Flaco had to stop after four blocks and rest on the sidewalk. Even after that, he sometimes had to abort and reattempt landings. His range now extends northward to the park’s northern end, which is more than 2 miles away from his original location. Last weekend I went to the park to visit him. However, it was clear that he had moved on to other places and was exploring the area based upon the reports the day before. He’s started to land “seemingly effortlessly, with grace,” Barrett says, all of which should improve his hunting as well.

Maybe Flaco is not blessed with innate gifts, then; perhaps he is simply a sharp and persevering student. Many New Yorkers, natives or transplants, had to become students. It’s terrifying to ride the subway for the first time. By your 100th trip, however, you will be able to identify which station car is nearest your destination. The street signs help you navigate Manhattan. Next, you will learn how to find the closest skyscraper. Flaco traverses the city with aplomb, avoiding tourists and nosy neighbors. Flaco loves to be alive at night, and he hates vermin. As anyone living in New York knows, he’s an authentic New Yorker.

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