Film: Rare Bird

Mark Bittner's love of wild parrots fuels director Judy Irving's unique documentary

Birdman of San Francisco: Mark Bittner tends to his beloved parrots in a scene from The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a love story as well as an exquisitely beautiful nature documentary. It's about the love people can develop for abandoned animals as well as the love that eccentric, romantic, breathtakingly scenic San Francisco inspires in all of us. Long after the Summer of Love, it's still a city where dreams come true.

It certainly brings out the dreamer in Mark Bittner, the aging hippie and bird-lover who is every bit as much a part of this film as are the parrots he cares for. A free spirit deeply influenced by the Beats and American Zen philosophers including Alan Watts and Gary Snyder, he lives for free in a hillside caretaker's cottage in one of the city's most picturesque neighborhoods, below landmark Coit Tower.

At one time he wanted to be a musician, not an unusual past desire for someone his age in the Bay Area. Bittner's home, so enshrouded in vegetation it could just as easily be located in an Amazon rainforest as in one of America's most densely populated cities, is on the flight path for a flock of wild parrots. (A flock consists of about 45 birds.)

How San Francisco, and several other cities, came to have wild parrots is one of the questions investigated by director Judy Irving. Apparently, they — or their parents — were abandoned by or escaped from pet owners and stores.

Most are cherry-headed conures (New World parrots) with lime-green bodies and hypnotically intense eyes that make them vividly expressive and even human-like.

They are outcasts, yes, but also free. Coming together with mighty squawks, these birds are able to adapt to San Francisco's cool, ever-changing climate — as long as they can find food and avoid predatory birds.

In this quest, they have a friend in Bittner. Not only does he give them food, but also love. He treats them like children, naming them and looking out for them. And they seem to respond as if they trust him. He provides shelter for those that are frail. When he plays acoustic guitar in his cage-cluttered quarters, a parrot named Mingus sways and nods along as if part of a hootenanny. When Mingus gets in a quarrelsome, temperamental mood, Bittner punishes him by putting him outside — the opposite of "grounding" a bad child — and the bird cowers until let back in.

Bittner also watches out for another parrot he has named Connor, who is a blue-crowned conure and thus not fully accepted by the others.

I'm aware this can seem a little dippy — maybe even pathetic — to some people: A guy without a materialistic life who projects way too much personality onto birds because he can't relate well to people. And there's certainly an element of rueful sadness in his demeanor. For instance, he tells director Irving that he refuses to cut his hair until he finds a girlfriend.

Yet Bittner is a principled and intelligent man whose views on anthropomorphism are provocative and insightful. He accepts parrots — and animals in general — as beings with feelings and emotional needs, and believes everyone should.

"We do a lot of bad things to animals because we don't believe they have these thoughts," he says. (It helps that parrots aren't dangerous to humans. A documentary coming out later this year, Werner Herzog's riveting Grizzly Man, shows what can happen when someone starts treating grizzly bears like children.)

Bittner, who pursues a Buddhist belief in a Right Livelihood rather than a career, also becomes an amateur ornithologist whose research is so respected that he eventually starts writing books about his experiences and observations. It thus becomes his Right Livelihood. This is one of Wild Parrots' key messages — Bittner is saved and informed by his love of nature. In this regard, I'd compare the film to the way Andy Goldsworthy finds artfulness and meaning in nature's wildness.

Apparently, others have responded the same way. It's become one of those quiet, word-of-mouth movies, like Goldsworthy's Rivers and Tides, that slowly opens in cities without massive publicity and then finds its niche. Since its release 18 weeks ago by tiny Shadow Distributing, Wild Parrots has grossed $2.2 million, a phenomenal number for a documentary not featuring Michael Moore. (The film opens at the Mariemont Theatre Friday.)

Irving became interested in this project after completing a six-part series on wildlife around the Bay Area. Originally shot on 16-millimeter film and then blown up to 35-millimeter, it looks exquisite. She and the additional cinematographers provide us with close, admiring portraits of the parrots, and they capture the sounds of their squawks and flapping.

She's made a great nature film, as interesting in its way as Winged Migration. But it's also about human nature, and she's done it with some of the best subjects a documentary filmmaker could find: wild parrots, Bittner and San Francisco. Grade: A

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