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The parrot trap

Cherry-headed conures find some good eatin in - Wild - Parrots.
  • Cherry-headed conures find some good eatin in Wild Parrots.

*The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (NR)

A few years back, Colorado Springs hosted a flock of wild Quaker (also known as Monk) parrots in the Hillside neighborhood. The birds survived four winters in Colorado's harsh climate, reproducing and fending off enemies human and non-human until lightning struck their nest, causing a fire that downed a power line.

The city's response? The parrots needed to be "rescued" from their wild environment since they caused "a potential for safety hazards and outages." In other words, they blamed the birds for the lightning strike, said neighbor Mic Robertson in the Aug. 23, 2002 Independent.

Last we heard, the parrots were to be captured and turned over to PetCo for rehabilitation and, eventually, placement in "suitable" homes, though they'd already begun rebuilding their nest. (If any of the Costilla Street neighbors has an update, we'd be interested in hearing the parrots' final fate.)

This anecdote makes one appreciate the unique point of view in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, documentary filmmaker Judy Irving's touching and surprising story of Mark Bittner, a grizzly old hippie living in San Francisco, and his decade-long love affair with the wild parrots there.

Living in a run-down cottage on a gorgeous estate with abundant fauna, Bittner spends most of each day caring for a flock of cherry-headed conures (Mingus, Sophie, Picasso and others) and their one misfit friend, a grumpy blue-headed conure named Connor. Irving, who enters the film only briefly, shoots the birds intently, producing some of the most captivating close-up footage of birds and bird behavior in this reviewer's memory.

Bittner's bittersweet narration tells the story of a human opening his heart to another species of animal. This indeed could be cloying, but his thoughts about the birds are entirely non-sentimental, and he is so articulate that the audience walks away having witnessed a small miracle: the expansion of a human heart.

Wild Parrots spends most of its time introducing us to the birds as individuals and as pairs. Mingus, who prefers living inside Bittner's apartment, dances to rock music and pouts when he's thrown outside for bad behavior. Picasso cuddles his little Sophie, who looks up at him adoringly, preening her feathers.

When Picasso disappears one day and doesn't return, Bittner reflects, "I'd like to see Connor and Sophie get together," imagining the odd couple might produce little purple-headed babies.

Reminders of the tenuousness of both Bittner's situation -- living rent-free with no income and no job -- and the birds' chances for survival raise tension in the film until, finally, Connor is taken down by a hawk and Bittner is forced to move out. The film's final 20 minutes are remarkably moving, making us feel as if we're losing a friend, then delivering a last-minute surprise that sends us soaring.

Wild Parrots is an uplifting example of what can happen when a documentary filmmaker fully enters the subject she is filming. And the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, urged by Bittner to let the birds live in the wild as they have for many years, demonstrates that sometimes government does best by doing nothing at all.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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