The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Produced, directed, filmed and edited by Judy Irving, this documentary is a tender story of love between a man and a flock of wild parrots who have made San Francisco’s north waterfront their home.
Homeless and searching for some kind of meaning in his life, Mark Bittner finds a no-rent situation as caretaker of a small cottage in the Telegraph Hill section of San Francisco where, outside in the gardens, he notices four parrots.
In the beginning, Mark’s attention is on the parrots intermittently as he goes through his daily routine. His curiosity about the parrots soon becomes admiration. Admiration soon becomes love, and each new day brings another delight and another lesson about their ways. Mark’s gentle and unassuming nature is appealing, and you can see why the parrots would accept him and trust him as they do, and how natural it is for Mark to embrace them.
This is a wonderful film that reveals the beauty of San Francisco in a personal way. The stealers of the show are definitely the parrots, and Mark’s devotion to them is inspirational. Judy Irving does well in presenting the compassionate side of human nature and the spiritual connection we have to the world and the wildlife around us. I can’t imagine anyone not liking this film.
As a matter of fact I didn’t want it to be over, and on the strength of my enthusiasm for Mark and these delightful creatures, I couldn’t wait to read Mark’s book of the same title, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Harmony Books, 2004), which Flickhead presented to me for my birthday.
“It’s a Heavenly thing to be allowed to touch a bird.”
— Mark Bittner (photo by Daniela Cossali; click to enlarge)
The book is great! I particularly enjoyed the story concerning Mark’s early days in San Francisco. It’s a place I’ve never been to, and he brought it to life for me. Through his description of his youthful and aspiring days during the 70’s, he brought to my mind this period of my own youth that had somehow escaped my notice. The psychedelic quality of that time and space, along with the music of the flower children, was in my peripheral vision — occasionally admired, but not experienced in the flesh. My small hometown wasn’t really a happening place. San Francisco would have been an exceptional place for me to visit at the time. I would have fallen under its spell. Perhaps I would have stayed there.
Mark’s story is genuine. He describes himself as a regular guy who has had some good times and some bad times. When he was a kid he wanted to be a writer. When he grew he changed his mind and put his efforts into being a musician — which is why he wound up in San Francisco, where musicians sprouted like wild flowers through cracks in the pavement.
Later, when music didn’t pan out for him, he had no vocation, no direction in life, and no place to live. He depended on the generosity of others who would occasionally help him out. He read a lot of books and studied the Eastern philosophies that might somehow help him find what he was looking for. He lived in his friend’s beat-up van. He was evicted from the van. He slept in an alley. Police chased him from the alley. He slept on a roof. He gleaned what coins he could find on the ground and bought day old bread from an Italian bakery. He worked odd jobs for food, and at a really low point in his life had thoughts of suicide. He did not follow through but went on searching, and in due course discovered the path that lead him to his future.
Mingus (above) liked to stay inside with Mark,
occasionally hiding and then popping out to play and poke at his feet.
A flock of wild parrots was Mark’s saving grace; their existence in the gardens outside his door and his pleasure in observing them was a distraction from the worries about his future. He intended to bird watch, but the parrots were a pleasant surprise. Their flight and their antics — their mere existence in a part of the world they are known not to come from is a marvel. From this point on Mark cultivates a relationship that blossoms, and in doing so finds a respite from the cares that have plagued him all along.
The film and the book compliment one another. It really doesn’t matter whether you read the book first or see the documentary, as one will lead you to the next. But my suggestion would be to read the book first. I think that knowing the story and having it all in your mind first will make watching the film even more enjoyable. The stories in the book, of course, go into more detail about Mark’s life and his feelings and about the individual parrots and their personalities. I was considerably touched by the stories of the sick or injured parrots he had brought into the house to care for, especially little Tupelo. These are the birds he really got close to.
We are not all cut out to be seekers of fortune, but I think we are all seekers of truth — our own truth. In either quest there is the primary notion that what we are seeking will ensure our happiness. Like Mark, I grew up as a child of the 50’s, a teen of the 60’s and a young adult of the 70’s. I sought happiness and never put a dollar value on it. I thought happiness was the husband and the children I longed for, and I focused on that to the exclusion of everything else. Ironically, I didn’t marry until I was thirty-three and I have no children; so all those years I spent seeking what I thought would make me happy right then and there, could have been spent learning all the things I crave to learn now in my fifty-sixth year.
But that is a spilt milk situation that cannot be relived and shouldn’t be cried over —besides, I have found happiness in many things that were not on my original to-do list. When you’re older you come to realize that happiness in this world — so says Nathaniel Hawthorne — “…comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained. Follow some other object, and very possibly we may find that we have caught happiness without dreaming of it.”
Accordingly, Mark’s path through life brought him to where he is today. As a result of his curiosity and kindness toward the parrots he was given the privilege to hang out with them and to get to know them more intimately than he could have imagined, and that brought him unexpected happiness. He’s written a book about his experience and it’s the subject of a great documentary — can it get any better than that? I suppose it can.
Thank you Mark for sharing your story with us. Thank you Judy Irving for showing it to us. But most of all, thank you wild flock of parrots for gracing our world with your presence.
A note about the soundtrack music
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is dedicated in memory of Chris Michie, who began working with Judy Irving with the intention of writing background music for the ending credits. He soon wound up composing a delicate and emotive score for the whole film. It was Mr. Michie’s final project before he passed away on March 27, 2003. For more information, visit the Chris Michie website.