Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill


Yes, it is about parrots, and they are wild (though they will eat out of your hand), but it’s really about Mark Bittner, who is the birdman just south of Alcatraz. There are small flocks of escaped tropical birds all over the US, including a bunch of parakeets in Chicago until the city evicted them. Apparently they can withstand the cold climate, but often have trouble finding the kinds of food they need. Ornithologists hate them, because they’re non-native. Hey, I hate starlings, too, but it’s not like these parrots are threatening to push out any indigenous species. Let ’em go, say I.

Watching pretty birds is fun, but I was wondering where the director, Judy Irving, was going to go after the first ten minutes. And the real question to me was not how the birds survived in chilly San Francisco, but how Bittner survived on extremely expensive Telegraph Hill with no job and no money in the bank. The answer is fascinating. The man is obviously crazy, but he’s not nuts. He lost me a few times with talk about receiving emotion from various of his feathered friends, but I still liked him. And I think he was doing worthwhile work on parrot behavior. They are a lot easier to observe in a little group of trees in the middle of the city than in the dense rain forest. Bittner began completely ignorant, was self-taught, and by now I suspect he’s one of the world’s experts on parrot behavior.

One small problem in an otherwise excellent film experience. We all anthropomorphize animals. I do, and I’ll bet you do. It’s harmless, but it can rankle me. And because we fear death, we see it as somehow evil. It’s not, it’s part of the natural process. So we can be sad when a hawk takes a parrot, that’s okay (though rather foolish). But stop and think about the hawk. She’s only doing what nature adapted her for, feeding her children. Predation is natural and necessary. Stop making it so sad. Rejoice that she made her daily kill.