Parrots? In San Francisco?

Pet Travel Thursday

By Pamela Webster

NOTE: Pamela is our new Pet Travel expert.  You can learn more about her on our Contributor’s Page and next month, we’ll be interviewing Pamela so you can get better acquainted as she starts her new gig here at A Traveler’s Library. Welcome, Pam!!

Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, San Francisco
Telegraph Hill with Coit Tower in the Background, photo by Michael O’Brien

Destination: San Francisco, CA

Movie: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Directed by Judy Irving (Broadcast in 2005 on Public Television and now available on DVD).

To anyone who has ever kept birds as pets, as I have, it may come as a surprise to learn that several U.S. cities (including Brooklyn and Chicago!) are home to feral parrot flocks. And while the thrill of seeing these beautiful birds flying free and thriving in a wild state may not be your first reason to travel to one of these cities, it’s certainly an experience worth going out of the way for once you’re there.

And what if you happened to find yourself living right next door to a group of these remarkable birds?

The image of a quiet observer befriending wild creatures brings to mind Jane Goodall with the chimps of Gombe or Dian Fossey and the gorillas of Rwanda’s forests. But a similar story played out in the shadow of San Francisco’s Coit Tower when “bohemian St. Francis” Mark Bittner noticed the cherry-headed conure flock on Telegraph Hill. Over the years, Bittner became an expert in the ways of the parrots, an advocate for their welfare, and their friend.

Documentary filmmaker Judy Irving depicts Bittner’s relationship with these intriguing birds in her elegant and intimate film portrait, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

It’s also a portrait of a unique neighborhood in a unique city.

A few (vertical) steps from North Beach with a commanding view of San Francisco Bay, Telegraph Hill was for years a working class enclave. The steep building conditions kept land prices low so that dock workers could afford to live there.

One of the few neighborhoods in San Francisco to escape nearly unharmed from the 1906 earthquake, Telegraph Hill features some of the city’s oldest buildings.

In this century, sleek modernist architecture huddles on the hills alongside nineteenth century “cottages.” It was in one of these cottages that Bittner lived rent-free when he began following the flock.

Bittner had traveled to San Francisco to seek his purpose, working briefly as a musician before realizing it was not his path. Instead, he became a self-described “Dharma bum,” supporting himself by doing odd jobs and exploring eastern spirituality.

Although he remarked several times in the film that he didn’t want to be seen as eccentric, the path Bittner followed is undoubtedly unconventional. And his simple life and ability to live on very little money gave him time to observe the birds.

Bittner started watching the native scrub jays and mourning doves but found them dull. Then one day he noticed green parrots perched in nearby trees.

As he watched, the parrots reminded him more of acrobatic monkeys than of birds. Their antics drew him in until he began to recognize the unique appearances and distinctive behaviors of the birds. And then he began to give them names.

Parrot of Telegraph Hill
Parrot of Telegraph Hill, photo by Dave Schumaker

By the time Irving began filming Bittner with the parrots, he had been observing them for over five years and was feeding them by hand. Or, in some cases, a parrot would take a sunflower seed directly from his bearded mouth.

Bittner had his favorite birds. He was particularly fond of the blue-crowned conure he called Connor. Being a different species, Connor was an outlier in the flock. but he had a dignity and protectiveness toward vulnerable birds, including a budgie Bittner called Smitty.

Despite their increasing comfort with Bittner, the birds remained wild. Although he occasionally nursed sick birds in his apartment, they didn’t enjoy confinement. As Bittner explained to curious neighbors and tourists who watched his interactions with the birds, the parrots were not his pets.

And yet the parrots apparently found the Telegraph Hill neighborhood as salubrious as their South American homelands. In his research, Bittner discovered that the exotic garden plants of his neighbors provided as much food for the parrots as they would have found in Ecuador or Peru.

San Francisco, both temperate and tolerant, was a welcoming habitat for both the solitary man and the wild birds.

And just as the dense gardens of Telegraph Hill protected the birds, Judy Irving’s film created a nurturing vessel for Mark Bittner’s story.

Flying flock
Flying Flock, photographed by Andrew Fitzhugh

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a beautifully observed tale of a neighborhood, a man, and a flock of birds. But unlike many documentaries, Irving is more than an observer. She injects herself into the film and becomes an actor in the lives of both Bittner and the birds. Her involvement leads to the film’s charming surprise ending.

What’s perhaps most surprising is how well the film depicts the individual characters of the birds we meet–and how easily we are drawn into their stories.

I was intrigued enough that when I visited San Francisco a few weeks after first seeing the film, my first stop was Telegraph Hill. I was thrilled upon climbing the Greenwich steps to see a large flock of parrots headed toward their nesting area for the night. I didn’t have time to see if I could recognize the individual birds I remembered from the film. But I have no doubt their individual characters would have shown through after the briefest of meetings.

The film’s great promise is that anyone with a little time can make connections to wild animals they may have never thought possible.As Bittner stated in the film, “They’re afraid of death. They’re afraid of injury. They’re afraid of being alone. Like us.”


Disclaimers:  It is the policy of A Traveler’s Library to disclose affiliate links. The link to the DVD title in this post links through “Something Wagging This Way Comes” affiliation with Amazon. If you buy something through those links, you will be helping Pamela’s blog pay the bills. THANKS!  All photos used here are from Flickr with a Creative Commons license. Please click on the photos to learn more.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

13 thoughts on “Parrots? In San Francisco?

  1. Did you know that the parrots of Telegraph Hill even made it into a novel? Written by Jim Paul, it is titled Elsewhere In The Land Of Parrots. I found it quirky, charming, and quite unexpectedly touching. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to see the flock in real life one day!

  2. And in even more parrot-sighting news, I used to live down the street from a flock in Edgewater, NJ! (It’s right on the edge of the Hudson River, and parrot aficionados suspect they are an offshoot of the Brooklyn flock.) It can get pretty cold here in the winter, but the parrots can handle it – and are so beautiful with their pops of bright green against the grey branches.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with the others. This story is absolutely fascinating. It makes me wonder what kind of feral birds may be hiding in my city. Due to the cold temperatures, I doubt parrots would survive, but one never knows whay can be found…

  4. How absolutely fascinating!!! Wow the last line- they are afraid of being alone. like us. I loved the clip and want to see the full film now. I wonder if they have this on netflix, if not I’ll look for it on DVD. Thanks so much for directing us to this.

  5. The trailer has left me absolutely enchanted. I’m definitely going to have to check this one out! I had no idea that there were flocks of feral parrots in the U.S.

  6. Between the trailer and this wonderful review, I *have* to get hold of the film! I haven’t seen anything as funny/charming as the parrot nodding its head in time to the guitar music in a long time. Great job, Pamela (she says with a certain amount of pride and only a little I-told-you-so)!

    1. Thanks, Edie, for the encouragement, the nudge, and recommending me to Vera.

      You won’t regret watching this film. It is very charming and beautifully shot.

      BTW, Arizona has several flocks of feral parrots. I believe they are mostly peach-faced lovebirds. Maybe you’ll start looking for them in your travels around the state?

      1. Thanks Pam. This is fascinating and total news to me. Now I’ll have to look for those lovebirds, since the Internet sources says they can be found in Tucson! The thick-billed parrot used to live in far southeastern Arizona as well as Mexico, and there have been attempts to reintroduce it, but I gather very few have actually shown up.

Comments are closed.