The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)

Director: Judy Irving


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Rod Heath, my collaborator on this site, may have a right chuckle when I say that one of the most amazing things about my visit to see him and his family in Australia was looking up in the sky and seeing flocks of parrots flying around, common as dirt, or pecking around on the ground like a rich man’s pigeon. I’ve been a birder for many years and seen a lot of beautiful and unusual birds in different parts of the world, but experiencing the raucous galahs and elegant sulfur-crested cockatoos claiming a bit of tree or sky as a normal part of the day is something I’ll never forget.

Parrots and their genetic cousins don’t occur naturally in the United States and Canada, and many birds and their eggs have been imported, legally and illegally, for those who can pony up a fair amount of money to keep the birds as pets. Unfortunately, keeping an exotic bird doesn’t suit everyone—they’re noisy, given to biting holes in one’s cheek and furnishings, and are likely to outlive their owners. A fair number of pet parrots are given the heave-ho by their owners; some also escape their cages. In this way, wild flocks of these birds have established themselves in the urban areas their former owners inhabit. Here in Chicago, a wild flock of monk parakeets has made its home in the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park since the late 1960s, surviving harsh winters and scarce food conditions, and growing to as many as 200 individuals. Similarly, San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill has provided a roost to a flock of parrots, mainly cherry-headed conures, since at least the early 1970s.

Many San Franciscans noticed the conures over the years, but only Mark Bittner had the patience and time to become their friend, champion, and nursemaid. In the process, he brought an end to the 20-some years of chronic poverty and homelessness he experienced while trying to find himself. Judy Irving’s documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, brings us the story of Mark and the conures in a way that manages to be wildly entertaining and touching while still providing valuable information to birders and naturalists interested in exotic species in urban habitats.

parrots%201.jpgThe film opens with Mark standing on a path near his home (he’s a squatter who been allowed to stay) surrounded by cherry-heads who are eating unshelled sunflower seeds from his hands. Some curious tourists are asking him questions in French and English about the birds. An American man starts grilling Mark about whether they really are wild birds. “You feed them.” Yes. “You have names for them.” Yes. “That’s not wild.” Yes, it is. The dissatisfied man says “Whatever,” and walks away in frustration. “What a turd!” I commented to the hubby.

In fact, however, although I didn’t like the man’s style, he brought up an interesting point. Clearly, some of these birds had been pets. Mingus, for example, prefers to stay inside Mark’s home; Mark punishes him for biting by putting him outside for a “time out.” The birds have become accustomed to feeding at Mark’s side, and he does treat them a bit like pets. Nonetheless, Mark was absolutely right to call them wild birds. Any bird will go to a steady source of food, but if that source disappears, the bird will forage. The conures nest and reproduce in the wild, something the film shows us, and that is not something a pet would do. And the birds exhibit flocking behavior, such as signaling warnings when a hawk is nearby and cooperating in eluding its treacherous claws and beak with defensive flying patterns. Mark has observed quite a lot over the years, learning the basics (his description of how he learned how conures feed their young is really funny) and getting a rare opportunity to study a type of bird that is very hard to track in the wild in its native range in Central and South America.

Irving’s film is superbly constructed. After laying this early groundwork, she gives us more about Mark’s background—the desire he had to be a rock musician that brought him to San Francisco in the first place from his native Washington State; his unwillingness to pursue another career, preferring to rely on his survival skills and the odd job to keep body and soul together; his gradual introduction to the birds and growing fascination with them as individuals and as a flock. Then she introduces us to some of the birds, which Mark has learned to recognize from specific behaviors and physical characteristics. She has Mark demonstrate how close observation can help anyone become attuned to peculiarities and learn to really see what they are looking at. If there is a star conure in the film, it is Connor, the only blue-crowned conure in the flock. Mark Parrots%20Connor.gifdescribes him as a curmudgeonly, but dignified bird that is kind of cranky because he has no mate nor any other blue-crowneds to hang with. Connor won’t accept preening (feather-cleaning) from the other birds, but he does defend individuals that are being harassed by other members of the flock.

Mark gives us a bit of background on the mating habits of the birds, including their basically monogamous nature. He tells the story of a rare divorce, when a male rejected his neurotic mate for persisting in pulling his feathers out. He also tells us about a red-masked conure that has mated with several cherry-heads and created a new hybrid. His attention to the nuances of each individual helps us to understand that these birds are complex creatures with a social system that compares in many ways with our own. His touching story of nursing a sick conure named Tupelo conveys his experience of the feelings birds can express to those who care for them and leads to a philosophical discussion that seeks to put human beings in harmony with nature. Irving’s background as an environmentalist and maker of nature films helps her capture the right tone to communicate this message without making it seem airy-fairy or preachy.


There are some surprising developments in the story that I don’t want to spoil. Suffice to say that Mark’s experiences with the conures changed him profoundly and helped him find the path he had been looking for both personally and professionally. The flock garnered international attention, so their continued existence on Telegraph Hill seems relatively secure for now, despite one threat to their roosting trees. Hopefully, this film will inspire more people to appreciate the everyday miracles that help make life so much richer. l

  • Kathryn spoke:
    5th/06/2007 to 10:56 am

    I also loved this film and recommended it to all my birder and non-birder friends alike during its brief run here in town. Like your Australian visit, one of my favorite memories of a trip to San Francisco (taken a few years before the film came out) happened when I was wandering around the city and happened to come across a flock of parrots making a racket in the trees. It came as a complete surprise and only later did I realize these were the “famous” parrots.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/06/2007 to 2:40 pm

    I hope Rod won’t mind me telling a little story his visit to Chicago. Walking on the peninsula off the Northwestern University campus, he became completely engrossed in a raccoon that was foraging in a garbage can. Apparently, it had some babies around, too, though they didn’t come out. Our walk came to a complete standstill for a while.

  • Jon & Barbara Lind spoke:
    26th/08/2009 to 7:29 am

    Our beloved 21 year old blue-crown conure, Georgie, died last year. She is lovingly remembered by her fellow feathered friends, a lessor sulpher cockatoo and sun conure.

  • Jon & Barbara Lind spoke:
    26th/08/2009 to 7:29 am

    Our beloved 21 year old blue-crown conure, Georgie, died last year. She is lovingly remembered by her fellow feathered friends, a lessor sulpher cockatoo and sun conure.

  • Jon & Barbara Lind spoke:
    26th/08/2009 to 7:29 am

    Our beloved 21 year old blue-crown conure, Georgie, died last year. She is lovingly remembered by her fellow feathered friends, a lessor sulpher cockatoo and sun conure.

  • Jon & Barbara Lind spoke:
    26th/08/2009 to 7:29 am

    Our beloved 21 year old blue-crown conure, Georgie, died last year. She is lovingly remembered by her fellow feathered friends, a lessor sulpher cockatoo and sun conure.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/08/2009 to 9:14 am

    My condolences, Jon and Barbara. Birds can be such wonderful companions.

  • jaci spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 7:31 am

    hi, i enjoyed this movie because i love birds, i have 1 hahns macaw, but i want a blue crowned conure like conner. i cried at the end, it is so sad at the end, how conner dies and how a hawk ate him and how he has to give away mingus and his other birds, because he was getting evicted from his home. SO SAD AT THE END!!!!!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 8:58 am

    Jaci – I also felt the ending was sad. But this film give Connor immortality and was big help in the cause of preserving the parrots’ home. And, after all, love blossomed, too.

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