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The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Mark Bittner is for the birds.

Mark Bittner is for the birds.

Rated 4.0

In Judy Irving’s big-hearted, warm-blooded The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, about 44 cherry-headed conures and one blue-crown cousin roost, fly, eat, get sick, mate and are occasionally fed upon by hawks on a San Francisco hillside just below the landmark Coit Tower. The origin of the flock is a mystery embedded in the fertile, speculative soil from which urban legends sprout: a commercial truck accident, a busted airport cargo box, the home of a lady who died, a ship at sea, or the downtown pet shop of a female proprietor who went mad. Pick your favorite. Or make one up. The birds—with their bright-green body feathers and short, hooked bills—have not shared their secret since first being sighted in the late 1980s. And they’re not likely to do so in the future.

Irving, a veteran of environmental films, describes her captured-on-camera bird hunt as a “nonfiction feature” rather than a true documentary. It has a main character, a supporting cast of winged and non-winged participants, a story arc and a sort of surprise ending. And she even makes a guest appearance.

Irving became interested in the parrot flock while shooting a six-film documentary on Bay Area wildlife and open spaces. She planned to shoot a short on Mark Bittner, a transplanted Seattle-area songwriter-musician who hand-fed sunflower seeds to the birds on the balcony of his cottage daily. Bittner left a first impression of a bearded burned-out hippie. But he waxed nearly poetically when surrounded by his winged clan. Irving’s story soon sprung wings of its own and gradually transformed from quickie featurette to a story that is just as much about finding a pure purpose in life as it is about nature and our relationship to it.

The film begins with a magical allure in slow motion as a child watches and then attempts to catch blossoms falling from a park tree. Then, we’re transported up the wooded and home-dotted hill to Bittner’s habitat along the classic Greenwich Steps. There, several tourists have stopped to stare in amazement at his open-air aviary and ask a few questions, and one passerby is intent on rather negatively grilling Bittner about the sanctity of his mission. Thus is launched a story about the freedom we can glean apart from today’s career-driven world to explore new spiritual as well as physical paths.

Bittner shares his insights as well as his fantasies about the members of the parrot flock. He can tell the birds apart from their small individual markings or peculiar behavior, and he conjures up amusing and sometimes cautionary personality profiles and back stories for his feathered friends. We are introduced to Mingus, the only wild parrot that not only likes but also seems to demand domestication; the cool, quiet, cranky outsider Connor, a protector of the sick and persecuted; Sophie and her older mate, Picasso, who emanate the dense scent of love; and Scrapper and Scrapperella, a volatile couple who eventually separate—possibly over her overzealous habit of plucking her mate.

Wild Parrots is informative, moving, sad, optimistic and irresistible. It is about a man with no visible means of support who basically spent 25 years living in such urban nooks and crannies as a hotel roof, basements and storerooms. It is about a man who decided one day to search for what Buddhists call the “right livelihood” and was just as surprised as we are at what he encountered along the way. And it is sprinkled with talk of anthropomorphism and a reference to a Shunryu Suzuki story in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in which the finite elements of a single consciousness are explained in the terms of a river and a waterfall.

The movie was shot on 16 mm film, a rarity for documentaries these days. It uses some of Bittner’s own video footage and has been blown up to a gorgeous 35 mm print for theatrical release. It is tightly edited, sandwiching flock flight with shots of a soaring formation of fighter planes, and it enhances the photogenic San Francisco area with scenes shot from a helicopter. The soundtrack includes original retro folk-rock music from Chris Michie and songs sung by Bittner (“Peace of Mind”) and beat author Jack Kerouac (“Ain’t We Got Fun”).

The film includes a quote from UC Davis poet and professor Gary Snyder: “If you want to find nature, start right where you are.” Irving and Bittner have done it. And the experience certainly changed their lives. Now it is our turn.