Laura CliffordDocumaker Judy Irving ports her camera and crew to the wild country of San Francisco and visits self-taught parrot expert Mark Bittner as he tends a flock of mostly Cherry-headed conures (a species of parrots) that have taken up residence in that city as “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.”
Bittner was a homeless musician who relocated to San Francisco to find fame and fortune but things didn’t turn out quite that way. Instead, he fell in with a flock of wild parrot that came together from a myriad of places unknown. The musical, self-proclaimed dharma bum” (a homeless seeker of truth) took, at first, to feeding the colorful birds but, as the years passed, became an integral part of their little world, even nursing sick birds back to health.
Documentor Irving uses Mark Bittner’s book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, as the basis for this insightful look into a wild aviary world, little known but thriving on the city’s heights. As Mark tells his story, he is surrounded by his feathered wards as they perch upon his head, shoulders and arms, feeding on his cup of sunflower seeds, as he tells their story.
Bittner began what would become his all consuming passion when he noticed, years before, wild parrots coming to feed on his terrace. Slowly and carefully, he moved closer and closer to the birds until, one day, he held out a handful of food and, with great patience, waited for something to happen. Eventually, one parrot, then several, began to feed from his hand. As the years passed, the flock grew more comfortable with Mark’s presence and began to treat him as one of their family.
Per Bittner, his flock (there are two in the city, now) numbers about 45 members, with each having a name and, as the story unfolds, a unique personality. The majority of the flock is made up with the Cherry-headed conures and you get to know some of them individually. Whereas the norm for the parrots is to want out when inside, one of them, named Mingus, wants nothing more than to stay inside with Mark. Picasso and Sophie are an affectionate pair of birds with diminutive Sophie caring for her big lug, Picasso. Pushkin and Olive are a troubled couple where the former was forced to “divorce” his mate because of Olive’s destructive behavior. Then there is the heartbreaker of the tragic life of little Tupelo – his story, literally, brought tears of sorrow to my eyes.
The most prominent of the parrot players in Bittner’s little flock is a Blue-crowned conure dubbed Connor. Bittner tells how the little blue head was one of the founding “fathers” of the flock and, he guesses, could be 14 or more years old. Whereas the majority of the flock is made up with excitable, hot-tempered Cherry-heads, Connor is cool and reserved, not given to emotional outbreaks. You get to know the taciturn bird and really see his reserved manner, especially opposite the feisty majority. Be warned: the emotional involvement you build up for this little guy is palpable.
Judy Irving couples the story of Mark and his wild parrots with bits of San Francisco color and background, from an old recording of beat poet Jack Kerouac singing “Ain’t We Got Fun” to the hearing by the city manager over the fate of the parrot flocks. (They are thriving and can take very good care of themselves, FYI.)
A documentary film that can affect you, emotionally, and get you to invest your feelings in a flock of wild birds (and their friend and keeper, Mark Bittner) is a real accomplishment. “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is a satisfying docu that keeps your heart and mind completely enthralled. I love San Francisco and now have yet another reason to visit that hilly town. I give this one an A-.
Laura gives "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" an A-.
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