St. Francis of the city

Judy Irving’s genial documentary about a flock of wild parrots in San Francisco is also a portrait of Mark Bittner, the North Beach free spirit who became a kind of protector and friend to the birds. And because Bittner takes such an observant and open-hearted interest in the birds, some of them become poignantly identifiable characters in the film as well.

Bittner, a transplanted Seattleite, first came to the Bay Area thinking to pursue a career in music but ended up hanging out for three decades and surviving on little more than the good vibes of Beat-era North Beach. Somewhere along the way, he began paying close—and prolonged—attention to the birds around his rent-free cottage. And by the time Irving began filming, he had become a kind of hippie St. Francis—both caretaker and defender—to the several dozen red-crowned conures coming and going on Telegraph Hill.

Irving’s “non-fiction feature” is partly a story of relationships—Bittner and the birds, Bittner and the neighborhood, Bittner and Irving herself—but Wild Parrots’ most intriguing elements emerge when the film itself seems to partake of Bittner’s respect for both the wildness and the individuality of the birds.

In the process, some of the birds emerge as distinctive characters—a devoted pair whom Bittner names Picasso and Sophie, a lone and rather melancholy blue-crowned conure dubbed Connor, and Mingus, a temperamental sort and the one bird in the bunch who insists on staying indoors.

Irving’s modest cinematography is no match for the epic poetry of Winged Migration, but there’s plenty to see in Wild Parrots just the same. Irving’s skill as an editor of sound and image makes for bird-watching of a plain but very spirited sort.