Wild at heart

Photo by Mark Bittner
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (DVD)

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a documentary about escaped parrots that have gone native in San Francisco, and an old hippie.

But, quite unexpectedly, it’s also a story of love, life, learning and loss. It sneaks in, quietly announcing itself as the former, and you think “Okay, I could stand to learn about birds, and this guy’s not too much of a flake.” But there are currents at work here, as subtle as they are powerful, and I swear they’ll catch you up.

The first half will have you wondering what the difference is between a pet, an animal that’s a friend, and an animal that’s wild.

“Dharma bum” Mark Bittner, who has “no money, but all the time in the world,” has befriended one of San Francisco’s two flocks of wild parrots. He feeds them, observes them, names them, narrates their lives, and attributes emotions and motivations to their actions. How much of what he sees is real and how much is it the human need to make stories of everything we see? Mark’s spent twenty-five years on the fringe of society. You wonder if his relationship with the parrots is neurotic, a transference of emotional need.

But they’re not his pets, he’s quick to tell us. They’re wild.

How do we categorize that relationship? I can think of animals I’ve been pals with, but I didn’t claim to own them. Is there such a word in our language? “Companion animal?” There are lots of folks I interact with regularly, but I wouldn’t call them my “companion humans.”

But if humans make stories of everything we see, we also dither over definitions too much. Does it matter if English doesn’t have a word for it, if the emotion Mark feels is real? Is it not enough to love?

And loss is the test of love. I don’t wish to give away the plot, but it is loss that shows that Bittner loves those birds. The love and loss is not of a parrot flock or a homeless man, it is of life itself, of mortality. So the film is remarkably bendy. You can identify with it even if “yeah I had a hamster once” is the sum of your animal friendship experience.

This movie is ultimately about being alive in this big universe, this vast inexplicable machine, and realizing how truly precious a real connection of any description is. Precious and fleeting. It’s that which lets this film sneak around our cynical barricades and through the side doors of our hearts, and we are richer for it.

Michael Collins


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