"Friend of the flock" Mark Bittner and San Francisco's wild parrots revisited

A February 1999 piece in The New York Times ("San Francisco Journal; A Birdman and His 50 Close Friends") was just one example of the international recognition for the flock of 50 exotic parrots - escaped from somewhere, and now breeding on their own - and their by then highly visible Telegraph Hill San Francisco observer that led to this charming little classic documentary, which reissues in a 4K restoration, on November 17, 2023 in New York, and December 1 in Los Angeles, to celebrate its twentieth anniversary.

At the time I avoided this film. It sounded too cute and cultish to me. I was wrong, or course. At first as Mark feeds the flock gathered on his arms and shoulders and head and answers questions of the curious, this just seems like a curiosity. All these green exotic birds - of three or four species and traceable back to Ecuador or Colombia or Argentina as a flock wild in San Francisco. The Times lists "43 cherry-headed conures, 1 mitred conure (with a half-red, half-green head), 1 blue-crowned conure and 5 mitred-cherry-head hybrids." Okay but so what?

So, the patient and sympathetic observation of the man and the birds that easily draws us in and sustains our interest . As we listen to Mark talk, and the San Francisco zoo's bird specialist confirms this, he turns out to possess a unique acquired knowledge of the birds' habits, interrelationships, mating patterns and individual personalities through daily observation. Though he only describes himself as "a friend of the flock," he has made the birds his main occupation for a few years lately, following some years earlier of genteel, meditative homelessness. This despite the fact that, though they are preyed on by raptors and can get diseases, Mark insists the parrots don't at all need his care to survive and can do fine on their own as what they are now: another flock of wild birds in the city.

The parrots emerge, some of them, very much as individuals, such as Picasso, Mingus, and above all Connor, the blue-crowned conure, who has lost his mate and is old, but cares for the weaker, smaller birds. "He was a kind old bird," Mark remarks after Connor's sad passing, after he, Mark, has moved in temporarily with friends across the Bay, and apparently Connor, aged and feeble, has been carried off and devoured by a red-tailed eagle, one of the birds of prey hovering around.

In an easy flow of narration, Mark Bittner explains he came to San Francisco at 21 from Seattle to become a folk musician (though he didn't) and has remained for 26 years, working only at odd jobs - never paying rent or cutting his hair; he's vowed not to cut it till he gets a girlfriend. In recent years he has found the calling of feeding and observing the wild parrot flock. Occupying a cottage on Telegraph Hill now, he uses it to provide a bird hospital for the parrots when they get sick, the way the two brothers do in last year's wonderful documentary All That Breathes, by Shaumak Sen. (Two very different situations and very different films, each valid and instructive in its way.)

Tom Eby and Denise St. Onge are the couple who have allowed Mark to live in the cottage below their Telegraph Hill spread for three years. But, standing in a room with a splendid view of the Bay, they explain that change is coming: the cottage cottage has to be extensively remodeled to bring it up to city standards (and probably provide expensive rental income in one of the most magical parts of the city), and so Mark must move out. He has decided to leave town altogether, get some space to write. He has no idea where he's going yet.

The film flows seamlessly, mostly following Mark and the parrots but seamlessly taking in others, like two women neighbors, the landlords, city officils when needed. Somehow the film fits the loose airiness of the city, its beauty, its hills, its special light, its sense of uniqueness. After all, Mark began in North Beach, with Beatniks and Hippies, and in the early moments we hear Jack Kerouac singing a song. The setting where Mark lives affords views over the Bay, down to the Presidio, and across tall buildings. Most importantly, a careful watcher of this film will see that the filmmaker, Judy Irving, is able to provide exactly the right images of the birds to fit Marks' very specific descriptions of them and their behavior: this film is, among other things, a seamless collaboration.

In passing we learn there is also a wild parakeet flock in San Francisco, as well as wild parrot or parakeet flocks in Southern California, Utah, Texas, Florida, Oregon, Connecticut, New York City, and Chicago. Somehow, though, there's something very San Francisco about Mark, and this flock, being tolerated and nurtured here. But there's also something very solid about Mark, despite his marginality. (He has described himself as "a homeless seeker.") He reads books about biology and morality; he reads Gary Snyder; he tells a story told by Suzuki Roshi, the legendary first Zen teacher of the San Francisco Zen Center. Mark sees the unity of all beings, and his account of the death of Tupelo, the first parrot to die with him, shows an sensitive awareness of the presence of consciousness in other species. He has learned not to be "anthropocentric" in his thinking. He speaks with clarity and simplicity; we see this when he appears at City Hall. He also has been taking color slides of the birds and keeping a journal, transferred to a computer he has been given and maintained as a blog.

We need a sequel - not on the wild parrot flock but on Mark. We get a little one: a shot of him getting his long tail of hair cut off and the announcement that he has found a mate. But that was then. What has he been doing in the twenty years since?

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill 83 mins., debuted in SXSW (Austin) Oct. 9, 2003, and was released theatrically Feb. 9, 2005, becoming an international hit and a one of the highest-grossing documentaries of the year. A 4K restoration is being rereleased to celebrate the film's twentieth anniversary and get the film back on multiple online platforms starting Nov.17, NYC and Dec. 1, LA; at the Roxie in San Francisco in Jan. 2024. Metacritic rating: 80%.

For a recent interview with Mark Bittner, see: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: Where Are They Now?