“I had to admit I loved them,” Mark Bittner says simply, trying to explain to the camera that, although he doesn’t anthropomorphize the birds he’s nursed for many years, he also recognizes the strong emotional bond he has developed with them. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill isn’t so much a “nature film” as it is a film about Nature and the magnificent oneness of it all — how we all, human and otherwise, float in the same river of life.
Cherry-headed conures are those energetic, talkative and plump green birds with red-feathered heads. They spend most of their day eating and playing. Several U.S. cities have developed flocks of wild parrots — birds who were born in the Amazon jungles, came to the States as pets, escaped and became wild again in the urban forests among telephone wires and rooftops. In San Francisco, the wild parrot flock eventually numbered 45 members, becoming a tourist attraction on Telegraph Hill and turning a dedicated bird lover into a local celebrity.
Like a modern-day St. Francis, musician Mark Bittner draws the birds to him, feeding them from his hands and lips, caring for them when they get sick, burying them when they die. Like Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees in Africa, Bittner had no formal training when he began his work with the wild parrots. Like her, he began to name the individual animals, recording their personalities and relationships and observing the intimate and peculiar dynamics of the flock. Parrots are extremely difficult to study in the wild, so Bittner’s amateur observations have made him a world-recognized expert on parrots.
As in all good stories, Parrots has a time bomb. Bittner, who has no income and has managed to live rent-free for 25 years, must vacate his current residence. His landlords, nice people who’ve let him live on their property for three years, have decided to renovate his cottage and rent it out. Not only must Bittner find another place to live, but he will have to find new homes for the few parrots that are afraid of being outside; and more terribly, he’ll have to say goodbye to all the creatures he loves so dearly.
Over the months of the documentary’s shooting, Bittner reveals himself as a remarkably unpretentious, articulate and compassionate man who, in a Zen-like way, has let events lead him instead of doing it the other way around. Like a flower adjusting to the increasing light of the day, director Judy Irving has let her story unfold slowly, so you’ll have to take a deep breath and calm down to fully enjoy this movie. And when you do, you’ll realize Parrots is a masterfully crafted little gem whose sparkle sneaks up on you. It’s a spiritual quest and a romance, a tale of friendship and the compassion of strangers. Most of all, it’s a story about how one man, rootless, goalless, lost and lonely, found an answer to all his yearnings in a flock of wild parrots on Telegraph Hill. Rated G.
– reviewed by Marci Miller