Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The parrots of the city I love

It's no secret I LOVE San Francisco. I fell in love with it from the moment I read the first chapters of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City in my cozy London home in Ravenscourt Park and it's a love that has endured, especially now since I went on my own book tour to the city a few years ago and instantly felt at home albeit houses and apartments have become outrageously pricey and there were a lot of homeless which was very troubling to me. It reminded me of nineties London when Margaret Thatcher threw the mentally ill out of the hospitals and institutions to make the National Health Service leaner and meaner. Some say there are homeless in San Francisco because, unlike say New York City, the city has a heart and provides services for them. Others say--admittedly those entirely of a strict and right-leaning Republican mindset--that there are homeless because of the 'damned liberals.' I don't know what the reason is, but they are there in abundance.

So it was a pleasant surprise that my local PBS station aired The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill on the telly last night. The documentary follows Mark Bittner, an out of work musician, a man who is not concerned with the rat race and at ease with himself, as he transforms from a chap who just happens to feed sunflower seeds to the cherry-headed conures (and one blue-crowned conure called Connor) living wild in the city.

I'd heard of the wild parrots, indeed had hoped to see them during my visit but they proved elusive. If only I'd known of Mark and his cottage perched in Telegraph Hill with its magnificent view of the bay during my visit. Apparently, the flock started when a few conures that had been brought from South America as pets were deliberately released by San Francisco residents years ago and they've bred and been able to survive because of the warmer climate and abundance of food. (New York City and other American cities have their flocks of wild parrots now, too.)

At first Mark was merely curious about the birds, but then gradually he learned about and from them and became something of an authority on their habits. With a little macho bravado and humor, he states he does not love the birds but then acknowledges it's not true and breaks down when he discusses the death of one parrot that he'd taken in because it was horribly injured and how it showed him great affection, particularly on the night it died, affection that he'd found very strange and palpable when he'd carried it to its sleeping place for the night. Next morning he found its fragile carcass beside the heater;during the night, knowing it was dying, it had managed to crawl across the room so as to be close to the heat as parrots do when they're cold and sick.

During the documentary, the viewer is treated to the glorious sight of the flock (about fifty birds) swooping and diving in the azure skies above the shimmering bay and city. Two parrots are very different from the others. One is called Mingus and somewhere in his life's journey he broke his leg and thus can't function fully within the flock. As a result, he does not like to fly with them because they pick on him and much prefers to stay indoors, though he has a Jeckyl and Hyde personality so Mark punishes him for misbehaving by putting him outside. Another character was Connor, a blue-crowned conure (a different species) who was tolerated--and tolerated--his cherry-headed cousins, but was never fully accepted. He would come to the defense of the smaller cherry-heads if they were being bullied by their larger siblings. Once he had a mate, but she died. Later, he was introduced to another blue-crowned conure and the two formed an extremely close bond, despite the fact that a mistake had been made and his companion was male. His friend was called Busby (I think that was it) and he was an indoor bird but proved very jealous when Connor left to fly wild with the flock during the day. In the end, Connor decided he'd couldn't handle the possessiveness and stopped coming indoors to spend time preening his friend.

Mark lost his apartment a year ago and had to say goodbye to his birds because he moved to the other side of the bay. Shortly after he left, the documentary producer, Judy Irving, returned to do some last bit of filming of the birds. It was fortuitous because it was Connor's last day of life. Three hawks (they're the flock's mortal enemy) attacked and there is a picture from a SF resident on that day showing a hawk with a conure under its claws that's believed to be Connor because of a wisp of blue on his head. He was fearless of the hawks, only flew away when he was sure there was mortal danger, but perhaps old age caught up with him and he made a fatal error.

A check of the website shows Mark is back on Telegraph Hill again, living next door to his old flat, and he's now married to Judy and writing a memoir about his experiences. (He had a very straggly ponytail which he'd said in the documentary he would cut when he had a girlfriend.)

A gem of a documentary from PBS's Independent Lens.


Grump Les Tiltskin said...

Similarly fascinated with San Fran and with parrots, I went to see that movie at the flicks.

It was a triumph.

Five feathers.

Damian McNicholl said...

I like the five feathers accolade, Grump.