San Francisco is justly famous for its hilly terrain, and we trudged up and down many inclines during our vacation there. The one we most wanted to tackle, though, was Telegraph Hill. Approached from the water side, just off the Embarcadero, the summit is attained by climbing the 400-odd steps of the Filbert Stairs. The concrete flights at the bottom give way to wooden walkways and stairs a little further up, passing through lush gardens flanked by picturesque cottages and fancy multi-million dollar homes. The hill is crowned by Coit Tower, its lobby painted with lovely Diego Rivera-esque murals, its top affording a panoramic view of the city.
Another of the hill's attractions is the flock of wild parrots that lives there, described by our guidebook as the "descendants of jail-breaking pets". I had dearly hoped to catch a glimpse of them, and wasn't disappointed: as we approached the stairs through quiet flat condominium-lined streets, we heard raucuos screeching, and raised our heads to see the flock wheeling against the sky. We caught a few more glimpses of them, never from very close, as we laboured up the pretty hill, exclaiming at the verdant plant life and charm of the dwellings.
This lovely documentary by Judy Irving focuses on the relationship between Mark Bittner and the parrot flock, and is a companion piece to the book of the same name by Bittner. I haven't read the book, but can vouch for the gentle craft of the film, wherein, under Judy's gentle probing, Mark's and the birds' story unfolds.
Mark came to San Francisco from Seattle some 25 years earlier to become a musician, but didn't enjoy professional success. Uninterested in a career, he scraped by, busking, working as a barrista and house cleaner, and living on the street or squatting. When we meet him he is in his fifties, scruffy and long-haired, a rather passive aimless sort who had been looking for meaning in his life and pining for love. He found both, of a sort, in the parrots, but kept his ponytail as a badge of his loneliness, telling Judy he would cut it once he got a girlfriend.
He first became acquainted with the birds more than five years before, when they came to feast on the sunflower seeds he had placed on his deck for native avian visitors. Observing the parrots through the window, he became interested in their behaviour, and over the next year they became so habituated to him that they accepted food from his hand. Particularly fearless birds even perched on his shoulder and took seeds from his lips.
Fascinated by his new feathered friends, Mark began to study them. He learned that the majority were of the species Aratinga erythrogenys, also known as cherry-headed or red-headed or red-crowned or red-masked conures or parakeets; the flock was also joined by a few blue-crowned conures and other avian escapees such as budgies. Originally from South America, they had been trapped in the wild and brought in great numbers to North America for the pet store trade - a practice much restricted since 1993 - after which they had escaped or were set free by owners irritated by their incessant squawking. Mark began to distinguish individuals among the flock and give them names, discerning elaborate stories about each of them from observing their characters and interactions. He took sick and injured birds into his home to nurse back to health. He discovered that they nested and bred, bringing forth two to four baby birds each year, and tracked down the nests to observe the little birds fledging. He had become a famous fixture in the area by the time Judy began to film him for her documentary.
During the movie, Mark is kicked out of his three-year-long squat, as the owners are planning a renovation. He is fatalistic about his future, not sure where he will go, but convinced the parrots will be fine without him. And so it is, for the birds are truly wild. They are blessed with abundant food readily available in the natural environment - fruits, nuts, and flowers - so don't need the seeds Mark supplies. They survive the cold winter - though budgies and other species rarely do - and number among their predators only cats, hawks, and humans.
The flock probably began with a single pair, and by the time Mark first came into their lives, numbered about 40; today, there are about 160 in this large avian community. This fascinating flock is not unique; there is another in another part of San Francisco, as well as counterparts in much colder cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston.
Very near the end of the movie, a friend cuts off Mark's ponytail. Has the awkward eccentric found love at last? Watch this beautifully filmed and edited documentary to find out. Highly recommended.
http://www.pelicanmedia.org/ is Judy's company's website, and contains lots of information about the parrots.