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Up in the Air, Mr. Birdman 

Telegraph Hill is home to a flock of wild parrots -- and one wild parrot guy

Wednesday, Feb 4 2004
It isn't easy for people to believe that Telegraph Hill is home to a flock of wild parrots, but the birds do exist -- in fact, there are about 130 of them. Some skepticism remains, however, about the parrot guy. Questions asked about the red-and-green squawkers might also apply to this semimythical figure: Where did he come from, and how did he wind up here? Could he be migrating? Is the climate really warm enough for him? "The parrot guy" is Mark Bittner, and he really does exist too, but there could only be one of him.

This weekend, Bittner and documentary filmmaker Judy Irving celebrate his book and her movie: Both are called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, and while they are, of course, about the birds, Bittner is really the main character, an ambassador for his avian buddies. Not that he's half man, half bird or anything -- he's just a guy who really knows his parrots.

"They took over my life for almost six years. Every single day, all day," he explains in a recent interview. Bittner, who began feeding the birds in 1994, eventually got attention from the New York Times, People, and CNN, among other outlets, when he lost his cottage on the Greenwich Steps. The memoir that resulted from his experience is a well-written recounting of this fascinating man's life, from the homelessness and despair of a "dharma bum" to the caretaker's job that landed him in the middle of a flock of cherry-headed conures. It's no wonder he's called the "Bohemian St. Francis."

"When I first started doing this I was sort of hidden," he says, but there's no discreet way to summon a flock of wild parrots in the middle of a city. As the major media outlets noticed Bittner's bond with the colorful animals, so did Irving, and her film addresses the flock's origin myths just as Bittner's book addresses his own. There's some giddy crosscutting between the Telegraph flock and another (called the Blue Angels) known to swoop noisily through the neighborhood, as well as reaction shots of people who happen upon Bittner, parrot-covered, and don't know what to make of him. Irving also asks what distinguishes him from a pigeon lady. His answer is disarming.

In spite of some hopeful anticipatory chatter about the event, the parrots -- Connor, Scrapperella, Tupelo, Inez, Sticky Chest, and others -- will not be able to attend.

Bittner and Irving seem to have enjoyed their parrot-related endeavors. "I didn't have to go to the ends of the Earth to make a nature movie," says Irving. "It was great." Bittner, for his part, says, "I intend to do another book, and it will have nothing to do with parrots."

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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