Dwellers on the Fringe

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Harmony Books, 2004

Birds—and the meaning of life—take center stage in Mark Bittner’s engaging and bittersweet tale, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. During the ’80s, street musician Bittner was homeless, making a scanty living through odd jobs and the kindness of strangers. In 1990, he took a caretaker job on Telegraph Hill, where he met another kind of stranger, a handful of parrots living free. Bittner became more and more fascinated by the parrots, and by paying sympathetic attention and acquiring knowledge without letting preconceptions get in the way, he became an expert about the flock and the species.
Most of the flock are cherry-headed conures to the pet trade, red-masked conures to naturalists. Bittner points out that these birds aren’t feral because they were never tame; they’re naturalized—wild-caught birds or their descendants. As they need fruit year-round, which they get largely from exotics planted in the city, they seem not to pose a threat to California’s native birds.
In 2000, documentarian Judy Irving began filming Bittner and the parrots. Bittner’s book came out this January from Harmony, followed soon after by the feature-length film of the same name. It’s now showing to sold-out audiences at festivals, and filmmaker Irving is seeking national distribution.
Bittner’s back in a flat on Telegraph Hill, still in touch with the flock, and three parrots are living with him.
<strong>Could you introduce us to your guest birds?</strong>
The two cherry-headed conures are Phoenix, better known as Big Bird, and Parker, for Charlie Parker. Phoenix smashed into a window as a baby and has vision problems. He was out of commission for a long time and lost connection with his parents. Now he’s a cuddle- muffin. Parker has some kind of palsy. He’s a wild bird—he endures me. And Filbert, an orange-fronted conure from Mexico, was abandoned by his owner on the Filbert Steps.
<strong>Are you still feeding the wild parrots?</strong>
Not much right now. A red-tailed hawk has been following the flock, and I don’t want to make them more vulnerable to attack. I’m seeing hawks in the area year-round now, not just during migration.
<strong>How’s the flock doing these days? How many are there?</strong>
The flock’s too big for me to know individually—I don’t see which adults are with which babies. I counted 130 a few months ago, but there have been some deaths since then. They don’t fly in one group very often any more except just after the fledge. I’m wondering if the change in flock size changes their behavior.
There are now 15 or 20 mitred/cherry head hybrids in the flock. The backcrosses are getting elaborate color schemes, red on the chest in addition to the head.
They abandoned their evening roost in Walton Square Park after 13 poplars were cut down. Most of them now roost in another park near the Embarcadero, but some may be going to the Presidio or elsewhere.
<strong>Are there other parrot flocks in the Bay Area?</strong>
There used to be a flock on the Berkeley-Albany border. I once met an elderly gentleman who said he had been trapping them because he was worried for them; he didn’t think they’d survive here. And there’s a blue-crowned conure flock on the Peninsula.
<strong>You’ve said there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the parrots. Examples?</strong>
I got a threatening e-mail from a neighbor complaining about one of the parrots that sang all night. That had to have been a mockingbird.
People think they talk, and claim they have talked to them. They believe there’s a pecking order in the flock; I know there isn’t. They believe they can’t take the cold, but it’s easy for them once they’re acclimated. The flock has gone through at least one freeze. They do have a problem with hard rain—trouble making fine maneuvers in flight.
And they have trouble in the heat here. They pant a lot. The median temperature where they come from in South America is 74.
<strong>How do they react to other birds?</strong>
They fear most hawks, of course. They used to be afraid of kestrels. Then I noticed one year a kestrel was diving at them and they were ignoring it. Sometimes they fly off when a raven or crow approaches; other times there’s no reaction. Maybe they recognize individual ravens who have given them trouble. They definitely recognize individual people.
<strong>Do you ever see same-sex pairs?</strong>
It’s hard to say. Connor and Catherine, the blue-crowns, may have both been males. You can’t really tell the sexes apart except by who disappears during the nesting season. There are differences in behavior: the males do throw their weight around more.
<strong>Does the flock have traditions?</strong>
Oh yes—for example, they use different trees for different purposes. They play in that incense cedar. They always stash their babies in the same tree while they feed; they also use it for napping and flock screams. A scream may go on for an hour and a half—and it’s distracting! Sometimes it’s triggered by seeing a hawk, and sometimes I think they’re just celebrating their parrotness.
<strong>How about their intelligence?</strong>
You can see them evaluate a situation and make a decision about it.
When you deal with the parrots, you’re encountering other personalities with their own likes and dislikes. I’ve watched them die and seen the struggle and sorrow they’re feeling.
<strong>Do you still hear from purists who want to get rid of the parrots because they’re not native?</strong>
Not so much. But I’ve thought a lot about that issue. You can’t just defend them by saying “Oh, the birds are my friends.” I think you have wildlife managers who exaggerate the problem. The parrots aren’t harming anything—I’ve never seen them attack a native bird, they aren’t driving them out. And it’s not their fault that they’re here. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to protect them.
<strong>Has your association with the flock changed the way you see nature?</strong>
I never not see birds anymore. I’ve become fascinated by raptors and I’m getting familiar with the birds in the neighborhood. I think of the parrots as ambassadors from nature. One of their great values is to get people to look at birds again.
<strong>Any future plans, now that the book and movie are out?</strong>
I’d love to go down to South America and see where they come from.

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