"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" Restored and Remastered on 20th Anniversary
Screening through January 25 at Roxie Theater. Mark Bittner & Judy Irving appearing in person January 12 & 13
This only-in-San-Francisco classic, true documentary film about homeless street musician, Mark Bittner, and his relationship with a flock of wild birds has undergone a five-and-a-half-year facelift, and the new 4K Digital Restoration screens at the Roxie Theater on January 12-25, with in person appearances by Mark Bittner and filmmaker Judy Irving.
The restoration was a labor of love. Because the original film was SD (Standard Definition, not HD, High Definition), it disappeared from streaming platforms, which no longer accept SD films. Producer/director Judy Irving, with the help of the Academy Film Archive, had the 16mm film negative scanned in 4K and slowly started cleaning up (“dust-busting”) the 120,000 digital frames. For the restoration and re-mastering completed in 2023, The Academy Film Archive donated a 4K UHD scan of the original 16mm film negative, retaining the 4x3 “director’s cut” framing.
Here's a 2004 Q&A that Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post did with Mark Bittner and Judy Irving. It includes **2023 updates where information has changed**
Let’s start with how long the flock has been flying free in San Francisco, and how it got started.
Mark: All the birds that started the flock were originally wild-caught cherry–headed conures (a.k.a. red-masked parakeets) shipped up from South America (Ecuador and Peru) to be sold as pets. My ideas on how they actually got loose change all the time. My current theory is that it was a combination of individual escapees and frustrated pet owners. The story of some birds getting loose outside a pet shop is possible, but then a lot of the stories I’ve heard are plausible. I have some leg band numbers, but that has proven to be a dead end. It only takes you to the quarantine station, not to who may have owned the bird after that. The first pair came together around 1987 and started breeding in 1989, so I always think of the flock as starting that year. Other parrots of the same species began to join up with the original group a few years later.
Some people think the parrots should be captured and given homes; other people believe any unwanted bird should be released. What do you think?
M: No and no. We shouldn’t try to capture them. They're doing fine on their own, and they have family relationships, which they have the right to maintain. They love being free; why should we take that away from them? And another thing: They're one of the few birds that everybody, regardless of their interest, stops to notice. So they make great ambassadors for wildlife. As for releasing pets, I don’t believe that domestic, hand-raised birds would survive.
You say you’re not a parrot expert, but do you think you have anything to share with those who study parrots in South America?
M: Well, I am an expert on this flock. I know its history and the individual birds and their relationships. Having had this experience, I know a lot more details about parrots than some people. I do think I could give some insight to field researchers, but I believe they’re a little bit concerned about me. It seems they have very strict rules about how to engage with a species, while I don’t follow anything like that. There’s an attitude that “If you’re studying birds then you should do it in a scientific way,” as if there are no other approaches. I think that’s a bit ridiculous, because you can interact with the world any way you please. I didn’t get into this to be scientific, but inadvertently I have learned a lot of facts. I have no interest in seeing things in an untruthful way. I always try to be accurate.
Have you seen a pecking order?
M: No. There is none. Even if a bird is aggressive, he doesn’t obtain a leadership position. There is no dominant bird that the other birds follow. One aggressive bird was actually kicked out of the flock for a while. The flock would come to eat, and he had to stay up in the trees.
You’re feeding strictly sunflower seeds. What else is in the parrots’ diet?
**Mark no longer feeds the wild parrots.**
M: They eat a lot of juniper berries, which, oddly, I’ve seen listed as poisonous to parrots. They eat fruit from backyard trees growing in the area—strawberry guavas, pears, apples, loquats, wild blackberries, etc.. They eat pine nuts and a lot of blossoms. Their range, by the way, is about four miles along the north waterfront. They are more accurately described as the North Waterfront Parrots. But at mid-summer they expand that range by about three miles down the center of the city. I believe it’s for food they find there at that time—especially Hawthorne berries.
**The parrots have significantly expanded their range, and are now routinely seen in Brisbane, eight miles south of San Francisco.**
Do you see a breeding cycle?
M: Yes, and it’s very consistent. They lay right around the first day of summer. I know because the females stop showing up for the feedings.
This hasn’t all been fun for you. I know you’ve nursed several sick birds over the years. Can you share some of those problems?
M: The main problem I had in the past was with young birds contracting some disease. We were never sure what it was, but it was probably pigeon paramyxovirus. The city has lots of pigeons. For a while there, every spring and summer, several of the juveniles developed the virus. The flock seems to have progressed beyond this problem. I never had the money to properly test any birds, but generally the flock is very healthy now.
** The problem has since been identified as rat poison. Mickaboo Bird Rescue necropsied several parrots who had died from what was thought to be a virus, but was actually neurological poisoning and death from eating rat poison (bromethalin).**
And there were other tragedies involving predators. Will you share a story with the readers?
M: Sure. Parents often stash their babies in a tree near my house, go out to forage, and then come back to feed their young. At the same time that the babies fledge, we also get an active migration of hawks through the city. One day I heard a parrot screaming, so I ran out and found a hawk on a telephone pole with a baby in its talons. The hawk had probably dived into the tree and caught one of the babies. The baby was still alive, and the hawk was ripping it apart. It was extremely unnerving to witness.
More of these stories are in your book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill – A Love Story with Wings. Do you want to make a plug?
M: Ok. I’ve had a very positive reaction to the book, and not just from bird people. The story has gotten around by word of mouth. People who don’t keep birds seem to enjoy it equally well. My publisher, Harmony Books, is New York-based, and they have good connections. The book is in stores coast to coast. Naturally, parrot people will identify with it. They recognize and relate to the stories first-hand. People around San Francisco are picking it up because they’ve seen the flock. But I think other people find it to be something unusual and different. Sometimes that’s what you want from a book. It’s a story first and foremost.
Are you amazed at the turn of events and the ride you're on?
M: Not exactly. It's been gradual, so I've had plenty of time to grow accustomed to each step along the way. But it's illuminating to find that a person can get into something without thought of what it might bring—just do it for the love of it—and then have that thing be the answer to so many of your dreams. That amazes me. And I think that's something that everybody wishes for. So I feel lucky. It’s given me the confidence to start another book. It won’t have anything to do with parrots, but I really feel like I have a path now.
**Mark recently completed another memoir, Street Song, about his spiritual search pre-parrots, and an album to accompany the book, Street Songs.**
Judy, what is your experience with birds?
Judy: I started loving birds because of my grandfather, who lived out on the North Fork of Long Island. He had trained wild chickadees to eat out of his hand, and he taught me how to remain calm and feed them too, when I was about 8 years old. He also had binoculars and a spotting scope, which he let me look through. But then I got interested in horses, and after horses, boys, and as I entered adult life I sort of forgot what a joy birds were. I still liked them. Sometimes I included them as background in my films. Then, 15 years ago, I bought a cockatiel, and Sweetheart introduced me to the parrot world.
How much did you know about the Cherry-head flock prior to meeting Mark?
J: I only knew what Mark had written in Bird Talk, a pet parrot magazine, back in 1995. I didn’t know a lot about keeping birds, so I read the magazine, and when I read Mark’s story I thought it might make an interesting short film. But Mark wrote that he would soon be leaving the Greenwich Steps, so I felt he’d be gone before I could even get started. Later I did do a short film on the great blue herons that had started nesting in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The film had a showing at a museum and two friends, independent of each other, told me I needed to consider meeting the parrot man living on Telegraph Hill.
Did you have a concept for the film in mind when you knocked on Mark’s door?
J: Not really, just that it would be short. I had a few rolls of film left over from another project, and I thought I could use it up. I didn’t think you could go very far with one guy feeding some parrots. At the least I thought it would be colorful.
At what point did you realize a larger story was unfolding?
J: Well the film had two development stages. First, when I met Mark, I thought he was too much of a hermit to communicate clearly about the birds. He lived in an absolute shack, he had rough clothes and very long hair and he seemed like a burned-out hippie unable to string two words together! But when he fed the birds it was like this wonderful, magical moment. The birds came swooping down into the garden and landed on his shoulders and arms and all around. Watching this I thought that maybe I could do some sort of 20-minute children’s fable and bring in a troop of young actors to watch and interact. But after a couple of weekend shoots I decided it wasn’t going to work. They say you shouldn’t try to make a movie with both kids and wild animals, and they’re right! The good news was that Mark’s work with the kids was fantastic. He told terrific stories about the birds and I realized he was actually very articulate. So the film’s direction changed and Mark became the center of a story about his relationship with the flock. And every story Mark shared about the parrots was true; certain birds were constant cuddlers, another was an old standoffish grump. I rolled film and it’s all right there in the footage.
After establishing Mark’s relationship with the parrots things became complicated. You get engulfed in it and while we see very little of you in the film you provide a fair amount of narrative in the way of questions to Mark – the viewer knows who you are. Is this your normal routine or was it hard for you to enter the film?
J: Oh it was hard, and for the longest time I stayed out of it. The film wound up taking four and a half years to finish, in part because the story kept unfolding. We would be logging film and starting editing and then we'd have to rush out and shoot something new. I like to work behind the camera, not in front of it, but issues arose that demanded I take a more active role. A couple of film editor friends who saw the rough cut just insisted on it because I had become somewhat of a mystery woman lurking at the edges.
How do you classify this film?
J: It’s a nonfiction feature. But it’s like a narrative film because it has a story arc, a main character, and a supporting cast both human and avian. When it played at the San Francisco International film festival, the reviewer from the San Jose Mercury News summed it up: “It is that rare documentary that has romance, comedy, and a surprise ending that makes you feel like you could fly out of the theater.” I like that quote; we’ll probably add it to the movie poster.
The film celebrates urban wildness, Bohemian and avian, and links the parrots’ antics to human behavior. A surprise ending ties the themes together and completes Mark’s search for meaning.
In August 2023, after being chosen from among 300 other films to represent the 2000-2010 decade in the Avalon Theatre’s "100 Years of Cinema Magic" series, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is now in full flight to theaters across the country in its new re-mastered plumage.
"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" comes to the Roxie Theater on January 12-25, with appearances by Mark Bittner and Judy Irving January 12th and 13th