San Francisco isn't exactly known as an urban jungle, but it does harbor its share of exotic creatures, and among these are The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Brought to the region from Central America, these cherry-headed conures ' with the occasional blue-crowned conure ' have been set free by their owners or escaped when they had the chance. Or maybe, like so many of us in this country, they're second-generation immigrants, having been born and raised in the wilds of San Francisco's North Beach area by parents fresh off the boat. Whatever their citizenship status, these pet-store outcasts have become one of the city's more colorful minorities.
And they've received the full red-carpet treatment from Mark Bittner, a self-described "dharma bum" who, in the opening scene of Judy Irving's quietly charming documentary, is dubbed "the St. Francis of Telegraph Hill" by a guy who's stopped by to watch him feed the birds. Once homeless and forever without a job, Bittner is something of a local celebrity, thanks to the six years he spent observing and recording and nurturing the parrots ' an exercise in amateur ornithology that, for Bittner, was closer to an act of love. And because Irving was there, off and on, for four of those years, doing her own observing and recording and nurturing, we're given a front-row seat to one of Mother Nature's odder pairings.
"I don't think of myself as an eccentric," Bittner says early on. Eccentrics rarely do, of course, but this one may have a point. Determined to find his path in life, he shunned the nine-to-five world, leaving him plenty of time to pick up where the Beats and the hippies left off. And that he ultimately landed on a flock of birds, which he treats like family, strikes even Bittner as odd, but what can you do when the Tao finally goes your way? In no time, he had these wild critters literally eating out of his hand; and, like Dian Fossey among the gorillas of Uganda, he developed relationships with them that seem to defy the boundaries set up within the animal kingdom.
Does he anthropomorphize? Perhaps, but one of the remarkable things about the documentary is how much footage there is to corroborate his theories about wild-parrot behavior. Another remarkable thing is that Bittner doesn't seem to realize how much of what he ascribes to the parrots also applies to him. Take Connor, the sole blue-crowned conure in a flock of redheads. Like Bittner, Connor's alone in a crowd, tolerated if not quite embraced, waiting patiently for a mate who may never arrive. But then, just when we start to think that Bittner's life is strictly for the birds, the movie hits us with a surprise ending. Believe me, you won't see it coming.