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A Perch With a View 

The controversy regarding the famous Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill may be drawing to a close, but the question remains: Does anyone still care?

Wednesday, Jan 18 2006
Over the past few years, people the world over have been introduced to the story of the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: the group of redheaded conures native to South America that use the leafy Monterey cypress trees on Telegraph Hill to sleep in, hide their young while on foraging trips, and as a stopover before continuing to other parts of the city. The story has been told largely through the efforts of Mark Bittner, who was living rent-free as the caretaker of a cottage when he began feeding the parrots. In recent years, the parrots' tale has had its share of controversy: John Cowen, who owns but does not reside on the property with the trees and birds, wants to tear down the trees because he says they're old, rotten, in danger of falling, and a serious liability. Bittner, who admits the birds could get along without his help, has led a vehement and high-profile movement to preserve the trees; only now does the dispute between the two men appear to be nearing a resolution. Are you an apologist for the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill? Take our quiz and find out!

1) In recent months, the drama, rhetoric, and rancor surrounding the wild parrots have increased considerably. In November, Bittner threw himself in front of the chain saws of workers who had been sent by the property owner to cut down the Monterey cypresses; planting himself at the base of the trees in protest, Bittner succeeded in persuading the workers to leave two of the trees standing. What do you make of the incident?

A) Hold on. Bittner was at the point of a chain saw and the tree-cutters just stopped?!?

B) Man, tree-huggers have all the fun. And get all the media attention.

C) Hey, aren't these the same wild parrots I see in Dolores Park all the time? Why couldn't they just move there? Oh, right -- Bittner feeds them.

2) Bittner, 53, is a formerly homeless and unemployed musician who began looking after the birds in 1994, and has since become their fierce protector. He told the Chronicle recently that the parrots "are my friends, and if I didn't help them, it would be absurd." What's your response?

A) No, Mark, that's not what's absurd.

B) A formerly homeless person living on Telegraph Hill? Do the cops know about this?

C) I would never make fun of someone with parrots for friends. (Bonus point for adding: "I did that once to a pirate, and, boy, do I still regret it.")

3) Bittner's book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story ... With Wings, was a New York Times best-seller last year, following the 2004 documentary of the same name, which was directed by Bittner's girlfriend. How did you first learn about the parrots' engaging tale?

A) Honestly? I stepped in parrot shit on Greenwich Street.

B) I read the book and saw the movie ....

C) OK, OK, I'll admit it: I didn't actually read the book. I tried, but, you know ... hey, at least I saw the documentary. (Bonus point for adding: "Until I dozed off.")

4) In the documentary, viewers watch as Bittner slowly builds trust with the red-masked parakeets, who eventually eat from his hand, perch on his shoulder, and respond to the names he gives them, including Picasso, Mingus, Snyder, Chomsky, and Mendelssohn. Do you think this delicate caretaker relationship should be preserved?

A) Hey, Mr. Bittner wasn't by any chance a hippie, was he?

B) Absolutely. It's not just any bearded writer/musician/poet who can name parrots.

C) Sure, but Bittner needs to be careful. There's a fine line between caretaker and one of those "cat ladies" who's hiding 175 kittens in her closet when Animal Control shows up.

5) In an indication of how much worldwide attention this story has generated, San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who serves on the city's Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee, which is handling the controversy, says he has received more than 1,000 e-mails about the parrots, which represents more correspondence than he's received on any other topic since taking office in 2003. Dufty attributes the interest in the story to its "old-world charm," and told the Chronicle: "I think it's really touched people." Do you agree?

A) More than 1,000 e-mails? How many of them had "Mark Bittner" in the From line?

B) A story with old-world charm, about touching people ... gosh, it's just like the plague.

C) Yeah, but if these were the Wild Parrots of the Outer Excelsior, we wouldn't be nearly as enthralled.

6) Mayor Gavin Newsom dispatched a representative of his office to negotiate the feud between Bittner and Cowen, which will likely be resolved by a nonprofit agency covering the cost of planting new trees to replicate the old cypresses. What do you think of this resolution?

A) Since it's San Francisco, and it's a dispute about trees, I'm just glad it's ending with no lives lost.

B) Gee, chalk up another victory for the Supermayor.

C) Crisis narrowly averted. Now about that murder rate ....

7) Many have questioned the motivations of the two opposing sides in the parrot feud, which has often grown bitter: At one point, Bittner accused Cowen of barring him from a deck where he tends to the parrots, while Cowen has suggested that Bittner exaggerates scenarios to increase media attention and sales of his DVD and book. Who do you think is ultimately to blame for the controversy?

A) The damn squawking parrots, that's who.

B) Sounds like this Cowen fellow is just another of those slimy San Francisco landlords who hates trees and animals and other living things. Also, I'm a sucker for bearded men with silly causes.

C) The Elections Department. Oops, sorry -- force of habit, I guess.

How to score:

Score zero points for every "A" answer, one point for every "B," and two points for every "C."

0-6 points: We know, we know -- you wish the whole thing would just fly away.

7-10 points: If only more homeless people were parrots, San Francisco would have that little problem all figured out.

11-14 points: Congratulations! You're a true apologist for the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. And now I think Polly wants a cracker, Mr. Bittner.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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