Review: “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is a San Francisco Treat



“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”

By Steven Rosen / Really Good Films / 2003

“The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is as lovely a tribute to America’s most beautiful and inspiring city as Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

In Judy Irving’s documentary, this is still a city for dreamers – some 40 years after Bennett’s classic song was released. The streets still climb halfway to the stars here. Homes overlook the water, the Golden Gate Bridge is fog-enshrouded, and the friendly Italian café owners treat their newspaper-reading patrons like members of an extended family. It’s a romantic and intimate vision, a mash note.

But she also finds another side – the lush, tropical side of San Francisco. That setting is part of what’s so fascinating about this film, especially for anyone who has been to that city by the bay and knows how cold it can be. “Wild Parrots” is as much a nature film – a “Winged Migration” sequel, maybe – as it is about the nature of a special city.

“Wild Parrots” mostly takes place amid the trees and gardens of Telegraph Hill below landmark Coit Tower. There are virtually no cars or trucks. Instead, there is a public walkway – an urban-forest trail, of sorts. And there are the squawks of exotic wild parrots, mostly cherry-headed conures (New World parrots) with dayglo-like lime-green bodies, who fly amidst the landscape with as much abandon as if they were in their South American habitat. It’s like a lost paradise, and Irving and the additional cinematographers film it as harmoniously as possible.

The parrots are fed and cared for by Mark Bittner, an aging hippie who lives for free in a hillside caretaker’s cottage and treats the parrots like children. And they seem to respond as if they trust him. When he plays acoustic guitar in his tiny, cage-cluttered cottage, a parrot named Mingus sways and nods along. He’s groovin’!

This is an educational movie about the parrots, and how a flock of non-native birds can survive and even thrive in a place like San Francisco. Irving lets several naturalists tell “urban legends” about how the parrots came to be loose. Apparently, they escaped or were let go by owner and found each other. There are flocks in several cities; as long as they find food, the cold weather doesn’t bother them.

The film’s close-ups of the birds are mesmerizing. They have Marzipan-like circles of white around their expressive dark eyes. And the recording of their cries and flapping is exquisitely sensitive. (Irving became interested in this flock after completing a six-film documentary series about wildlife around San Francisco Bay.)

Bittner has spent years feeding the flock, and he’s able to attribute full well-rounded personalities – even novelistic back stories – to individual parrots. (There are about 45 in a flock.) Connor, a blue-crowned conure, is a moody, aging loner who isn’t fully accepted by the others because the color of his head marks him as a different species. And he’s a little slow to fly off when dangerous hawks are nearby.

The aforementioned Mingus is such a house bird that Bittner punishes him for misbehavior by putting him outside, where he cowers near the door until let back in. And then there are the lovers, Sophie and Picasso.


Really, the film belongs to Bittner even more than the birds. In him, Irving has found a representative of what San Francisco once meant to the popular imagination. He’s a hippie seeker. As a result, this becomes a film about his self-discovery and, ultimately, redemption. And it makes “Wild Parrots” more than a nature film but also a philosophical one about life’s meaning, similar to “Rivers and Tides.”

He’s a latter-day Jerry Garcia in appearance, if not in wealth. Middle-aged and overweight, he’s kind of dumpy in just-up-from-hand-me-down clothes, scraggly hair kept in a long ponytail, and thick spectacles that make him seem owlish.

But he has a munificent smile and a patient demeanor, perfect for his undertaking. In bits and pieces, he tells his story to Irving, who asks off-camera questions that sometimes elicit a regret-tinged response. For instance, when she asks why he doesn’t cut his hair, he says he’ll do it when he finds a girlfriend.

As Irving gingerly lets Bittner reveal his life to us, we see the kind of person who was lured to San Francisco by another song – Scott McKenzie’s 1967 “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair).” And who got lost once he got there.

As he explains it, while washing clothes in a Laundromat, he came some 25 years ago with dreams of being a rock star. He wasn’t cut out for it and never really found anything else – he uses the Buddhist term “right livelihood” – which agreed with him. Except for this. And even this is put at risk when, late in the film, he must leave his cottage.

Bittner is a supporter of anthropomorphism, because he believes the parrots are capable of the same kinds of feelings he has. And he thinks we need to acknowledge that. “We do a lot of bad things to animals because we don’t believe they have these thoughts,” he says.

(You can go too far with such cosmic consciousness, I realize. In Werner Herzog’s new documentary “Grizzly Man,” a New Age naturalist named Timothy Treadwell so believes he’s one with some Alaskan grizzlies that he lets his guard down and gets eaten by one. But parrots are far more likely to be victims than predators, so Bittner’s observation resonates without challenge.)

Before watching “Wild Parrots,” I screened two films from the 1960s – Arthur Penn’s “Alice’s Restaurant” and John Frankenheimer’s “Birdman of Alcatraz.” I saw Bittner’s presence in both. The first was about hippies trying to create a new, non-consumerist society – a counterculture – and being confused about where to take it. In the second, Burt Lancaster plays a man on the outside of society – a prison inmate doing life – finding meaningful contact and purpose taking care of wild birds.

Bittner has found that, too, by going his own way. And he even seems to have created a career – a “right livelihood” – by writing about his experiences and observations. (Last year, he published a book called “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.”) In a way, it’s a classic San Francisco story. And I left a bit of my heart in this movie.


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