The International Writers Magazine
Film Review

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Directed by Judy Irving
Eric D. Lehman

Wild parrots flock through Seaside Park in Bridgeport, CT, where I teach at the University of Bridgeport. They wheel past classrooms, challenge the monolith of the library, and settle on the statue of P.T. Barnum. I noticed this phenomenon about five years ago and the mystery of these emerald birds puzzled me as I taught my way through English Literature and Composition.

There are no green birds in New England, I told myself stubbornly. Then again, my classes were filled with international students from over eighty countries, so why not these avian invaders from thirty degrees latitude further south?

The mystery’s solution was not easy to divine. I was told by field guides that these were simply housepet escapees from the urban wastelands of the northeast, gathering together in groups, much the same way my students sometimes separated by nationality in the cafeteria. Another professor told me that a truck had overturned on I-95 and released them all at once. The only sure information was that numerous pockets of these out-of-place creatures existed throughout the New York metropolitan area.

More surprising to me than the parrots’ mere presence was their ability to survive the cold New England winters. This was a breeding population, not some freak group that froze to death when times got hard. I see them every spring, greeting me as I return from break. So, when The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill appeared in American theaters, I was not surprised. After all, San Francisco would be more climatically tolerant of these intruders, and certainly home to more of the tree species that they would enjoy.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is one of a new succession of documentary films that have begun to crop up in the usually fiction-only U.S. cinema. To my mind, this is a fascinating development for a nation fed on fantasy. True, aside from 2004’s Farenheit 9/11, most of these non-fiction gems appear in arthouses and independent theaters, but this is an encouraging trend.

In this particular documentary, the charming antics of the parrots and humans co-existing in the Telegraph Hill area of San Francisco kept the audience I saw it with entertained and enlightened. The mystery of survival was solved for me by the curator of birds at the San Fran zoo, who told us that parrots have no problem with the temperatures, only with food. The mystery of their origin was not solved, though, and the documentary presented a number of urban legends, all of which sounded suspiciously like the ones I had heard in Connecticut.

The documentary focuses on the ‘birdman’ of Telegraph Hill, Mark Bittner. He was an aspiring musician and philosopher who refused to become part of the mainstream workforce, and found purpose and companionship with these other outsiders. He befriended the flock of cherry-headed conure parrots who congregated near the cottage he made his illegal home in, studying and observing them. In doing so, he discovered a niche of science, taking extensive notes on parrot behavior that would have been impossible in their jungle homes. To other birders, these non-natives were uninteresting or harmful pests. To the pet industry they were escaped merchandise. To Mark Bittner, they were life itself.

Bittner takes us through the narratives of several of the cherry-heads he knew, fed, and nursed. The film of Connor, Mingus, Picasso, Sophie, Olive, Pushkin, and Tupelo is some of the most touching and hilarious footage I’ve ever seen of bird behavior. Connor is actually a blue-headed conure, and his outsider relationship with the flock mirrors Bittner’s relationship with our forward-moving, career-based society. Connor’s solitary journey through life makes him unique, more than the blue feathers on his head. Although Bittner offered him the comfort of his ramshackle home, thinking his treatment by the other birds harmful, the blue-head preferred to be wild, much like Bittner himself. How many of us have the strength or patience of either of these individuals?

When the filmmaker, Judy Irving, falls in love with Bittner at the end of the documentary, the reason is readily apparent. Chuang-Tzu writes, "Everyone knows the use of the useful, but none know the use of the useless." After watching The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, we easily understand the use of this supposedly useless hermit and these supposedly useless "introduced pests."

The blue-headed Connor is taken by a hawk at the end of the film, dying just after Bittner is forced to leave Telegraph Hill. At this point, many people in the theater broke down weeping. I’d like to think that this was not the uplifting, self-gratifying weeping I have experienced at the bittersweet fictions that parade across our screens, but something more mature, more real. I am probably living my own fiction thinking that. But my feeling of watching this true story was one of hope and renewal - hope that people will learn compassion and tolerance from Connor and Mark Bittner, and renewal of my own appreciation for the natural world around me.

Bittner quotes the poet Gary Snyder at one point, saying "If you want to find nature, start right where you are." It is a lesson that was brought home again when a few weeks ago my girlfriend and I found non-native nests in nearby Stratford, CT. I spotted two green birds hanging off the side of one of these incongruous twig-castles. Other birds landed and flew away, though whether with aggression or friendship, I’m not sure. But these tropical birds are no doubt here to stay. Parrots live a long time and can obviously adapt beautifully to diverse environments, so I predict that these birds will be in southern Connecticut long after I have gone the way of the dodo.
© Eric Lehman July 2005

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