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The Bird Man 

Those of us safely wrapped in the security blanket of the middle class will commonly pass the lady with pigeons sitting on her head and do no more than shrug. If we think about her at all, we will conclude that she's addled, and maybe she is. But maybe she and other eccentrics whom we barely notice just march to the beats of different drummers. Maybe they've fashioned priorities so different from ours, we just can't see them. That's the premise of Judy Irving's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. This odd documentary isn't perfect, but if I had to describe the film in a single word, I would choose sweet.

Wild Parrots ostensibly tells the story of a flock of 45 green birds whose forebears escaped from captivity after being brought to California from South America. And indeed Irving trains her camera on the birds with such patient accuracy that we come to know several of them individually. But extensively, Wild Parrots is the story of Mark Bittner, a man sometimes called St. Francis of Telegraph Hill. Bittner is seen daily feeding the parrots from his hands, and if asked he'll gladly regale you with details of the birds' existence, as a group and as individuals.

In Irving's subtle hands, the lives of the parrots are a metaphor for the life of the man. Birds and human have lived in San Francisco for a long time, but neither is a native. Fiftyish and rumpled, with a long ponytail of graying red hair, Bittner came to San Francisco 25 years ago in hopes of making a career as a musician. In one sequence, he plays guitar and sings, and we can see that he is not without talent. But he gave up his professional musical aspirations years ago and has since turned to other activities, none of which involve conventional employment. He was homeless for 15 years, living on a rooftop under a tent of rugs. More recently he's been living rent free in a 19th century shack. But he's widely curious and a voracious reader, and at some point he found himself motivated by the words of beat poet Gary Snyder, who suggested, 'If you want to study nature, start right where you are.' Following that direction, as he says, without affect, having 'all the time in the world,' Bittner decided to study the wild parrots who lived in the vegetation just outside his door.

It took him a year to get the birds to alight on him and eat from his hand. But gradually he was able to distinguish them one from the next and thus to bestow them with names. And he noticed that they were paired. The parrots' mating was not necessarily for life. He tells the story of Scrapper, whose mate had the annoying habit of plucking his feathers. Scrapper stayed with her for a year, but eventually they broke up. Sophie and Picasso are more devoted, and Irving's camera captures them nuzzling and grooming each other. But easily Bittner's favorite is a bird he calls Connor. Most of the Telegraph Hill parrots are red-crowned, but Connor belongs to a different species and has blue head feathers. As a result, he's an outcast. He had a blue-crowned mate when Bittner first started studying the flock, but she died of a virus, and since then Connor has been without a mate. The cherry-head females won't have anything to do with him. And though the birds are remarkably social, Connor is left to associate with other outcasts, some of whom aren't even parrots. For a time, when Connor is sick, Bittner takes him inside the shack to recover. Bittner would gladly let him stay, but given the opportunity to rejoin the flock, Connor chooses the loneliness of freedom over the restraint of security. Irving avoids hammering the point, because we make the connection: Mark Bittner is the Connor of human society.

I wish that Irving had been more forthcoming about Bittner's life. What was he doing all those years before he started studying birds? He's begun to publish articles on the parrots, but where? Most critically, when Bittner has to relocate from Telegraph Hill, why does he have to end his relationship with the parrots? The film is only 83 minutes long, so there is ample time to address such questions as these. Still, these are minor complaints. Wild Parrots provides a memorable portrait of a fascinating man and offers arresting details about wild creatures that are far more complicated than most of us ever realized. The picture affects you the way a good movie should: It stimulates your mind; it touches your heart.

click to enlarge Mark Bittner with parrots on the hill - DANIELA COSSALI
  • Daniela Cossali
  • Mark Bittner with parrots on the hill
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