Wild Parrots flies on wings of success in book, film form
(originally published in Australian Birdkeeper, 2005)
By John Geary
What began as one person’s simple journal has mushroomed into a book and film phenomena saluted by parrot lovers around the globe.
Mark Bittner’s book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story with Wings tells the tale of an unusual relationship between the author and a flock of wild conure parrots living in the vicinity of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill.
At 21, Bittner moved to San Francisco to start what he hoped would be a successful career in music. When it did not develop, he found himself searching for meaning in his life, a journey that took several years and eventually resulted in the development of a six-year relationship with the parrots that lived in and around the city’s Telegraph Hill area.
During his forlorn early days of living hand-to-mouth on the streets, through a series of lucky connections, he landed a job as a housekeeper for an elderly woman, a position that came with a rent-free apartment on the Hill. While living there, he noticed the parrots that frequented the area, and found himself drawn to them, as he desperately sought meaning through a connection with nature.
Bittner found that meaning, as one by one, the flock began to fly to his balcony. He developed close bonds with many of the birds, feeding them, watching them, even helping nurse some sick and injured birds back to health, although he never desired to tame them completely.
A combination of factors motivated Bittner to document his experiences in a memoir that became The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.
“One long-standing issue was the fact I didn’t know what to do with my life, how to make a living,” the author says. “I wanted to be able to do something other than odd jobs, earning my keep by doing something I enjoyed.
“Writing was something I always liked, and now I had a story to tell.”
He also wanted to ensure the flock was protected from possible destruction.
“It seemed not too likely, but I was worried about fish and game departments wanting to destroy the flock because they were non-native. I thought if I made this (the flock) popular enough, that would never happen. I’m sure it never will, now.”
Initially, he considered the flock to be a distraction; he felt the birds took away from his focus on searching for a way to make a living at something he enjoyed. Eventually he realized the answer was right there – and it was being born to him on the wings of the conures.
“They turned out to be the actual solution,” he says. “I don’t mean I was using them in any way, as I really loved them - I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh, here’s something I can write a successful book about.’ But they opened the door for me.”
While he worked on the book, San Francisco filmmaker Judy Irving contacted him about making a documentary about the birds. Originally intended as a short film about children interacting with them, it became a feature-length documentary about Bittner and his relationship with the flock.
“His ability to tell great stories was really unique, and that’s what you need to anchor a longer film,” says Irving. “I picked up on that early on and realized if I could get footage of the birds doing all the behaviors he’s described, revealing their personalities, then I would have a good story.”
She also started to film a year before he had to move away from the house in which he was living, which meant she was filming the last year of his intense relationship with the flock, a time of significant change in his life.
“That gave me a really good dramatic structure, with a natural beginning, middle and end.”
Wild Parrots differs from many of her previous films, which were issue-oriented environmental films. Although it is a documentary, it has a story line.
“It’s got the best of both worlds that way,” says Irving. “It’s a real story, but it has the feel of a narrative film.”
The film is currently playing in several American cities, and began playing in Canada during the summer of 2005. A DVD release is slated for 2006. The film is scheduled for release in Australia this year, distributed by Gil Scrine Films.
Neither Bittner nor Irving expected the kind of public response they’ve had about the book or the film.
“I’m so busy, completely opposite to the way I was living before,” says Bittner. “I’m doing a lot of traveling (to film openings, book readings and signings, bird club speaking engagements, etc.).
“When I was living with the birds, I knew would have to leave some day, I wanted some kind of memory of the birds, so I was hoping someone would do a video or something so I could take that with me, but I didn’t expect this to happen.”
Says Irving, “At the beginning, it started as a little hobby film made with some extra film I had left over from another project, but it started to grow and it went through several stages. But it grew and grew to feature length, and now after a year-and-a-half on the film festival circuit, it’s really taking off.”
Bittner plans to write another book once this project has run its course. It will not be about parrots, though. He plans to write about his life on the street before meeting the flock.
“I’m concerned that if I write another parrot book right now, I’d never be able to write about anything else.”
Irving is already working on her next project, a short film about a habitat restoration project in south San Francisco Bay.
“The government has bought 16,000 acres of industrial salt evaporation ponds to restore them back to habitat that is more bird and animal friendly. This can really help a lot of migratory birds that stop here on the trip along the Pacific Flyway.”
For Bittner, the Telegraph Hill flock will always be part of his life. After a hiatus away from the area, he is back living in that area, and plans to follow the flock’s progress to the end of his life.
“It won’t be as detailed or as intimate as before, but I’ll be able to watch the general progress.”
Both author and filmmaker gained valuable insights about life from their association with the flock.
“For me, there were two really important things,” says Irving. “One is, that if you follow your path, what you are truly put on this earth to do, then the Universe supports you. That happened to me, making this film. It’s cliché, but it’s true.
The second thing she learned, she learned from Bittner.
“The film is more than about birds or a guy feeding birds. It’s about the nature of consciousness, about how we all share the same essential consciousness, an invisible, spiritual place of being that we all share with creatures.”
Bittner in turn, learned that from his association with the flock.
“The big thing I learned that I’d read but couldn’t see, but now I can, is that all life is one, all minds are part of one great mind,” says Bittner. “I’m convinced of that.”