The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

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My brother Brian, who passed away about 11 years ago, would have loved this movie. Not only is it about San Francisco, where he lived, but he knew the subject of this documentary, Mark Bittner, when Bittner was just starting out observing the parrots on Telegraph Hill. That’s not surprising, as birds fascinated Brian, too. When I was little, the side yard of our house contained quite a sizable collection of reptiles and birds, including at least one red tailed hawk at some point. Our backyard also featured a walk-in aviary.

After he moved out on his own, his apartments were rarely without at least one parrot, macaw or cockatoo, not to mention any number of other birds. I distinctly remember going into his bathroom to see the injured seagull he was helping to nurse back to health. This affinity made him somewhat of a kindred spirit to Mark Bittner.

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Bittner came to San Francisco sometime during the seventies to have a go at becoming a musician. That didn’t work out quite the way he had planned and Bittner found himself, for lack of a better word, adrift in the city. He’s never held down steady employment and, by his own estimation, hasn’t paid rent in twenty-five years. He’s done only what work he needed to feed himself and slept wherever he could.

In the early nineties, while living in a cottage on Telegraph Hill in exchange for doing caretaker work, Bittner took an interest in birdwatching. This lead to his discovery that there was a small flock of parrots living wild in the area. His interest piqued, he did some research and found out they were cherry-headed conures (A conure is a small, long-tailed parrot officially known as parakeet. What we call parakeets are actually budgies). This began a multi-year odyssey as Bittner slowly earned the trust of the flock as he fed them and studied them. He came to recognize individual members and began to name them as he kept a diary of his observations.

The film is very successful at conveying the distinct personalities of the various birds. There are Sophie and Picasso, a loving couple who survived a virus that left them both with nerve-damage. Mingus is a crippled bird who would rather be indoors. Bittner nurses Olive back to health while her mate Pushkin has to act as a “single dad” to their baby, Wendell. Connor is a cranky loner who’s the only blue-headed conure in the flock. He’s also probably its oldest member, having apparently been around since the flock was first spotted more than a decade ago.

What strikes you most about Mark Bittner is how intelligent and well-spoken he is. I don’t mean intelligent and well-spoken for homeless guy. I mean period. He’s genuinely personable and a natural storyteller as well as being a keen observer. He may tend to overly anthropomorphize the parrots, but for the most part his observations seem dead on. I’m guessing he doesn’t see himself purely as a scientific observer. He’s just a guy who’s fascinated by these birds.

Bittner’s primary fault, as the rest of us might tend to see it, is a lack of ambition that left him adrift on the streets for the better part of two decades. He would probably see this as one of his virtues. The material pursuits that consume the rest of us just don’t interest him. He has very little to his name and seems to like that just fine.

The film takes on a bit of a melancholy note when it’s learned that Bittner will have to vacate his small cottage because the owners of the property (who’ve let him live there rent-free) are doing major renovations to their home that will make his place uninhabitable. He is forced to find new homes for his injured birds and leave Telegraph Hill and the parrots behind.

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By this time, the “parrot guy” has achieved a small measure of international celebrity, to the point where City Hall convenes a meeting to discuss the fate of the flock. Bittner addresses the meeting and assures them that the parrots will be fine without him. They should be left alone. By all appearances, the city takes his word as gospel and follows his advice.

The main voices opposing him are environmentalists who say that the parrots are an “invasive” species that needs to be removed by any means necessary. Fortunately, this is an extreme view that carries little weight with the city officials. I mean, to call a bunch of birds “invasive” in the middle of a densely populated urban area is, well, kind of nuts.

Even if the parrots are invaders outside their natural habitant, they appear to be thriving in the urban environment and having no noticeable effect on the native species. Indeed, the flock grows from approximately 45 individuals when director Judy Irving began filming sometime around 1997 to at least 160 today.

Unfortunately, that number does not include all of the parrots we meet over the course of the film. At least two of them have fallen prey to the parrots’ only natural enemy besides us: hawks. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, Bittner recounts the last night he spent with Tupelo, a crippled female bird he had been caring for.

Lest you think that this film ends on a down note, quite the opposite is true. I won’t spoil the surprise, but this film has a genuinely happy ending. Suffice it to say that it has something tangentally to do with the length of Mark Bittner’s hair.

This delightful, family-friendly film is equal parts nature documentary and an intimate portrait of a fascinating guy. At 83 minutes, it seems too short but that’s just because you don’t want it to end. I’m going to check out Bittner’s book as well.

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