By Heather Johnson
According to certain Eastern religions and Western New Thought teachings, when one reaches a transitional point in life and doesn't know which path to take, it's best to simply do nothing. "Be still and know," says Psalm 46:10, which does not condone laziness, but rather, asks us to stay present and wait with confidence for the lead that will point us down the right road. In Mark Bittner's case, the sign he needed swooped down in the form of three bright green conures (aka red-masked parakeets) who landed on steps outside his North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco. The next day, all 26 of them showed up.
We're used to seeing these talkative South American birds caged in people's homes, but these particular creatures either fled from their owners, or their owners intentionally let them go. Many of the abandoned conures gravitated toward urban areas, due to the abundant greenery, blossoms, and seeds in gardens and parks to feed on, as well as a constant flux of humans, tourists especially, willing to feed them. Hence, the wild parrot conundrum.
Bittner paid attention to the flock that frequently visited his doorstep, and his subsequent study and deep friendship would spawn producer/director Judy Irving's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Bittner's fascination with his neighboring flock would also lead him back to writing - his teenage ambition - setting him squarely on a path of right livelihood. Right, indeed. Bittner's book, published in 2004 by Harmony Books/Random House, hit the New York Times bestseller list, and the following documentary grossed more than $3 million at the box office and has played in more than 440 markets to date. Consequently, Bittner is now perched in a nice new home, located right next door to the small cottage apartment and nearby juniper trees where the story takes place.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill follows the day-to-day life of Bittner; at the time, an occasional street musician/writer/poet, who, through random odd jobs, manages to scrape up enough cash for an occasional espresso at his neighborhood hangout, Café Trieste, along with many pounds of birdseed. From the porch outside the apartment where he lives, rent-free, as its caretaker, Bittner patiently observes the flock of conures outside his doorstep; watching, waiting, moving cautiously, until soon they would eat out of his hand. Later, they would perch on his arm, his head, even peck his ear. Yes, it hurt. He named and knew each bird in the original flock of 26 and recognized distinct personalities: Connor, a blue-crowned conure, older and distant from his cherry-topped brethren; Olive, a mitred conure that paired up with Gibson; Pushkin, who stole Olive from Gibson and fathered three hybrids with her; Mingus, the only one to come inside Bittner's home; and Picasso and Sophie, the lovebirds. Director Judy Irving films Bittner for nearly a year, and he openly shares his newfound ornithologist knowledge and recounts each bird's story in such detail, they become, well, human. We know when Sophie's flirting, or when Mingus acts up. We watch them soar across the western skyscape, and lose battles with a predatory hawk or stray cat.
None of this could have been accomplished to such effect, however, without Irving's one-woman cinematography (shot in 16mm film, blown up to 35mm). Her stunning close-ups of the birds and shots of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill certainly reflect her proven skills behind the camera - she won a national Emmy and Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Dark Circle in 1983, worked on Michael Moore's Roger and Me, and received a Guggenheim fellowship, among other honors.
More than a decade after Bittner first spotted the conures, he's evolved from homeless seeker to best-selling author, with other, non-parrot-related books in the works. Irving reportedly plans to expand on an "only in San Francisco" theme, exploring in future documentaries how different people interact with their city's environment.
I caught up with both of them shortly before the holidays to talk about the their avian companions and the pursuit of right livelihood.
Heather Johnson: Mark, what was going on in your life when these parrots showed up on your stairwell?
Mark Bittner: I was trying to figure out desperately what to do with myself. I had been looking around, but mostly I had been patiently waiting for it to land on my doorstep, and it actually did in the end. I don't take a Western approach to things. I'm more interested in Eastern ideas. And I've always had a feeling like I was on a path, that I was following the course of a river, and you don't jump the banks because you get impatient. So that's mostly what I was doing, but I was getting very impatient. It was a very difficult time for me. And in fact, what I was doing worked out for me very well. At the time, I was ripe [for something new], and it didn't affect me in a bad way.
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