The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

What’s the best way to study wild animals? James Wiley, a biologist whose intensive field research helped rescue the Puerto Rican parrot from extinction, believes scientists now put too much stock in genetic research and captive breeding at the expense of “plain old nineteenth-century biology.”

I thought of Wiley’s words as I watched Mark Bittner, a homeless street musician, working with the flock of parrots so marvelously profiled in the film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Though lacking in scientific credentials, Bittner had nothing but time when he befriended these feral San Francisco birds. He was free to study them with a thoroughness and intimacy Wiley might have envied.

“They remind me of monkeys,” he says as he feeds the birds seed and watches them climb in the trees, using their beaks as a third foot. He introduces us to individuals — Picasso and Sophie, a mated pair who have nerve damage and huddle sweetly together; Connor, a parrot with a distinct, blue head who defends weak birds against bullies; and Mingus, who lives in the cottage where Bittner is squatting and dances to his bluesy guitar.

Most of the birds are exotic cherry-headed conures, imported from southern Ecuador and northern Peru. The subtropical flora of the Bay Area provides plenty of forage. When they fly, it’s like watching wind-borne slivers of jade.

Bittner studies the parrots in his own fumbling way. He’s baffled when he sees some all-green parrots sticking their heads in the mouths of his regular rosy-topped friends. Later he realizes with embarrassment that he’s watching fledglings beg their parents for food. Most people wouldn’t place much faith in the observations of an aging, unemployed hippie. When director Judy Irving asks Bittner what sets him apart from the crazy lady who feeds pigeons in the park, he admits he doesn’t know.

But natural science is an attempt to expand human understanding — nothing more, nothing less. Bittner simplifies his life to the bone: there were the parrots and little else. His is a model for those of us with more traditional views of “science” and “success,” and who find ourselves living in a more confusing, frantic world.

Jan DeBlieu is the author of five nonfiction books and is a national medalist in literature. She has led writing workshops and clinics for all ages, in addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate creative writing courses. She is also known for her work as a conservationist and activist. DeBlieu’s work has been widely anthologized, and she has published dozens of articles and essays in literary journals and well-known national publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Audubon,and Orion. Her current work, including her forthcoming book, Searching for Seva: The Path to Selfless Service explores how ordinary people can help change the lives of others in need.