Directed by Judy Irving
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a documentary about the relationship between former San Francisco street musician/odd-job worker Mark Bittner and a pack of approximately 45 wild parrots, mostly cherry-headed conures with the occasional blue-crowned and mitred in the bunch. The flock is comprised of former pets that have been released or have escaped and their offspring. The film opens with Mark feeding these birds, and a number of people walking through Telegraph Hill stopping to ask him the same questions that are on the mind of the viewer.
The conures take up all of Mark’s time, leaving no time for a job or visible means of income. He feeds them every day; it took him a year to gain their trust before they would eat out of his hand. He also cares for the ones that fall ill, taking them into his home, a small cottage that has been provided rent-free for three years, which is perfect for his financial situation. When Mark nurses the birds back to health, they return to the flock. Except for Mingus, who suffered a broken leg and didn’t want to leave. Mark allows Mingus to stay, even though he can be a feisty roommate at times.
The film presents a very interesting, close-up study of these birds and their social structure. Take for example, Connor. He is odd bird out with the flock because he’s the sole blue-crowned of the group. He doesn’t get to mate with the cherry heads, but eventually he makes friends. A budgie follows Connor around like a little brother for a while. Mark was given another blue crowned who turned out to be a male, yet they would do things for each other that mates would do like preening. We also see how the conures deal with predators, like red-tail hawks, in the area.
One day, Mark’s landlords notify him that they need to renovate the cottage and it is time for him to leave. The outpouring of concern for Mark and the parrots comes from all over the world. He finds a home for the live-in birds, which is tough on him emotionally as he says goodbye. He then relates the story about Olive, a bird he was unable to say goodbye to. She was the first bird who ever died in his care.
Mark has named all the conures and the more time we see them, the more we notice their differences in appearance and personality. Early during the film, I wondered if Mark was anthropomorphizing the conures and whether that affected the filmmakers’ presentation; however, Mark relates a very intriguing story from Suzuki-roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind wherein the Zen master discusses watching a waterfall. The river breaks into individual droplets as it goes over the cliff and then reforms into one river at the base. The story is a metaphor for the way our individual consciousnesses break apart from and reform with the one universal consciousness. Hearing it cleared away my anthropocentrism.
I was curious about this film because, where I live in Orange, CA, there is a pack of wild parrots that live around me. I’ve heard numerous stories about their existence such as that they escaped from a local zoo or a crashed circus train. Since wild parrots are from South America, I thought this was a unique occurrence to Orange. I had no idea there were flocks all over the country.
At its beginning, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill appears to be a film about an eccentric man who cares for birds, but it is actually a beautiful, touching, evocative story about relationships. It will remind you of your place in nature and the events of the story will either cause doubt or justify your beliefs in the way the universe works. It tells a small, individual story and a big, universal story simultaneously. It is Winged Migration on a smaller scale, yet it doesn’t sacrifice anything in its scope. We need more film like this, so please go see it.
For those in the LA area, director Judy Irving and the subject of her film, Mark Bittner, at the Nuart Theatre on Friday, March 4th and Saturday, March 5th at the 7:30 & 9:40pm shows!