The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)

Rated G. Running time: 83 minutes.

Bless the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, thou art very great!
Thou art clothed with honor and majesty…
…Thou makest springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By them the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
Psalm 104:1, 11-12

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Judy Irving’s film has gained quite a following as it quietly makes it way to the art house theaters around the U.S., and I hope, Canada. It is the story of a would-be musician out of work for 30 years, and homeless for 15 of those years. For the past 3 years Mark Bittner has lived rent free in a ramshackle affair where he has seen that the 45 wild parrots living on Telegraph Hill have enough food to eat, and when injured, someone to care for them. One might think that he was some bird nut, but as we listen to him, we see that he is a very calm and collected person who has chosen to march to his own distant drummer. At one point he speaks of the connectedness of all life, and refers to a Zen master.

While it is no mystery how Mark came to San Francisco, it is as to how the flock of parrots came to be, both on Telegraph Hill, as well as another flock in another part of the city. Mark came to San Francisco at the height of the Hippy era hoping to make a living as a musician. He could find no steady employment, but he did meet Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. He existed on the streets as street musician until three years before Judy Irving discovered him, when he was allowed to live in the unused building of a generous couple. Although the birds, unlike Mark, cannot tell how they came from South America to live in the urban wilds, there are plenty of urban legends to explain them, such as that an old lady freed them all from their cages, or that a truck load of them overturned, knocking their cages open.

Dubbed by one on-looker as “The St. Francis of Telegraph Hill,” Mark often draws a crowd as he goes about his task of feeding and caring for the birds. He knows each one by its characteristics, even naming them, and mourning them when one succumbs to a disease. The birds do have to watch out for hawks, so they always have one sentinel to sound a warning. Mark is concerned about the future of his birds, as the owners of his building and the home above it are going to remodel the structure into a rental property, so Mark is moving out. We see him saying goodbye to the birds, in a manner befitting each of their distinct personalities. He lobbies on behalf of the birds at the City Council, and is told that they will be looked after. There is an interesting subplot regarding both Mark and one of the birds that has lost its mate. Mark is hoping that the bird will find one, even as the fifty year-old bachelor also is seeking a companion. Check out the film to see whether either of them is successful.