The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

| March 14, 2005

I think it was W.C. Fields who warned against ever sharing the stage with an animal or child. The natural response of innocence is a scene-stealer every time. In the delightful and moving documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Fields’ warning doesn’t hold true. Director Judy Irving’s effective documentary finds Mark Bittner every bit as interesting and compelling as the beautiful wild parrots he has managed to befriend. Mark is a homeless man unable to find his place in society, struggling to sort out his reason for being when he becomes curious about a flock of parrots that patrol his neighborhood. His true talent and obvious intelligence have found their target and the birds, known as cherry headed conures, become his passion.
When we watch him hand feed the group on a bush outside the door of his temporary residence, we question (along with a curious tourist) how wild they really are. But when they suddenly take to the air in a group screech and are blocks away within seconds we quickly recognize what freedom looks like. Mark is also a natural storyteller and points out bird behaviors mistakenly labeled “for humans only.” Judy’s direction patiently and faithfully illustrates these observations. We see the love affair between Picasso and Sophie who can’t seem to keep their feathers off each other. We watch as a male bird left by his mate decides to stick it out and raise the chicks on his own, struggling to keep them warm and hunt for food.
Then there is Connor, the eldest of the flock and a lonely outcast because he’s a slightly different species and has blue instead of red markings. Yet he doesn’t hesitate to intervene and protect other members who may get picked on by the bigger birds. Difference be damned. Some things are more important than petty differences.
There is the house parrot that moves in perfect bobbing rhythm and musical abandon while Mark plays a funky tune. We are as enchanted and moved to tears by the relationships, heartaches, braveness, cleverness, tragedies, humor and characters of this little kingdom as any compelling human drama. Mark is our gentle perfect guide into the bird’s social world that surprisingly mimics our own.
People leave the movie amazed by how similar the bird’s behavior is to ours but I would argue it’s quite the other way around reminding us that we share more in common with our animal brothers and sisters than we care to admit.

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