Noe Valley Voice November 1998

Filmmaker Hears Call of the Wild (Parrots)

By Suzanne Herel

It has all the ingredients of a great movie: exotic characters, a valiant hero, love, triumph, loss. Oh, and parrots. Dozens of parrots.

A flock of wild parrots that lives on Telegraph Hill -- and visits Noe Valley in the summer to feast on the area's fruit trees -- has snared the interest of neighborhood filmmaker Judy Irving. Now she's trying to raise $45,000 to turn the story into a half-hour educational film.

Irving, who with her Elizabeth Street­ based Independent Documentary Group (IDG) has been making films for more than 20 years, already possessed a love of birds and a cockatiel of her own, Sweetheart. And her award-winning work -- including Dark Circle, Nagasaki Journey, and Partners on the Land, shown on KQED-TV this past June -- often featured environmental and peace causes.

Add to that a chorus of friends and colleagues urging her to document the work of Mark Bittner, a modern-day St. Francis who has taken the city's wild parrots under his wing, and she had to give in.

"It was essentially that the recommendations achieved critical mass," she says.

In the early years of her filmmaking career, Irving explored the wilderness of Alaska and its caribou, geese, and salmon. "I thought you had to go that far to find the deepest wilderness experience. Now I'm realizing that for a long time I haven't looked around my own neighborhood."

She hopes her new film, dubbed The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, will open viewers' eyes to the wild aspects of our urban landscape. "You really can contact wild nature right here in the city -- all you have to do is open your eyes and look."

Irving began taking test shots at the end of October and is turning up the heat on fundraising over the next couple of months. Besides describing the fate of the flock -- which numbers between 45 and 50 birds -- the movie will follow individual birds, telling the story of their personalities, rivalries, and habits. It will also draw on "Mark's astonishing knowledge of these birds, most of whom he has studied and named," she says.

There actually are two flocks of wild parrots that live year-round in San Francisco. One, featured in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, consists of a species called Canary-Wing Parakeets. These relatively small birds lived on Telegraph Hill in the '70s, but were later booted out by the larger parrots that fly there now, the Cherry-Head Conures.

The colorful Canary-Wings currently make their home in the palm trees near the corner of Dolores and 24th streets. Irving is looking for people who can provide information on these birds' habits. She may include them in the documentary as well.

Up to now, her main source has been Bittner, a self-taught expert who lives in a cottage on the Greenwich steps leading up to Coit Tower. According to Bittner, the Telegraph Hill flock of conures grew from wild-caught parrots native to Ecuador and Peru that were either let loose or escaped sometime in the 1980s.

He has fed the birds, tracked their lives, and cared for the sick members of the flock for the past five years. (He even maintains a web site about his feathered friends:

"It took about six months for them to start to trust me," Bittner recalled on a recent afternoon, parrots perched on his arm and shoulder and eating out of his hand. The birds' green bodies and red-masked faces glowed vibrantly in the sun, and their chatter threatened to drown out conversation.

He hopes Irving's half-hour film will increase awareness about the parrots, which at this time have no legal protection. Ironically, some groups that support animal rights also want to eradicate non-native species. "If the birds can become some kind of icon for the city -- flying cable cars, so to speak, something whose destruction would be wildly unpopular -- that will increase their chance of surviving," he says.

Bittner himself won't be around much longer to babysit the birds. In six months, the owners of his cottage plan to gut the house to do a much-needed renovation. He'll have to move, taking with him only a few sick parrots and leaving the rest of the flock to survive on its own.

He has high hopes for their continued existence, however. In his view, the sunflower seeds he gives them amount only to junk food, and the birds have had five years to learn the area and the food it harbors. Besides, he says, "In the long run, it's best for them if they don't have someone who is a crutch. And the flock should be only as big as whatever the area can support."

Still, there's a good chance his birds will win new patrons -- people who, like Bittner, can't resist them. "The whole thing started by accident -- I was trying to feed the scrub jays," he says. But the parrots quickly charmed him. "They're so attractive because they're such an oddity. They're colorful and noisy, and they're little clowns -- they like to hang upside down a lot. As I really got closer to them, what was intriguing to me was their eyes. You can tell what they're thinking."

Irving expects to complete the film by next summer or fall, when she'll start shopping it around to public television and other educational venues. Those interested in helping to fund The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill can send a tax-deductible contribution to IDG Films, 394 Elizabeth St., San Francisco, 94114.

Irving says donors who send more than $500 will be listed in the film's credits. Those who contribute $1,000 will also get a tape of the documentary signed by her and Bittner, plus an invitation to the premiere. If you'd like a copy of the full proposal, give Irving a call at 824-5822.