Judy Irving’s The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is the third intriguing nature documentary of 2005, a charming sleeper hit that focuses like March of the Penguins on the life challenges faced by a population of exotic birds, and also, like Grizzly Man, on an eccentric California man’s intimate involvement in their lives.
The difference here is that the dangers faced by the film’s subjects, a small flock mostly made up of cherry-headed conures, aren’t those of their native environment. As for Mark Bittner, a middle-aged, unemployed San Francisco man with a waist-length ponytail that he says he’ll cut if and when he finds a girlfriend, he’s no Timothy Treadwell, driven to flee civilization for some exotic location and insert himself into the lives of creatures living in the wild.
These tropical birds, native to South America, live in San Francisco. Like many of the city’s residents, they’re immigrants — in this case escapees from captivity, though no one knows exactly from where or when. In many ways they still behave like pet birds, flocking to Bittner as he brings them free meals. Yet Bittner assures a skeptical bystander that they are wild birds, many of which were born (or hatched) in the wild and are now raising families of their own in freedom.
Like Treadwell with his bears, Bittner assigns his wild friends names and becomes intimate with their personalities, from homebody Mingus, a pet at heart, to flinty Connor, a blue-headed loner who takes his share of abuse but doesn't like to see other birds picked on. On the other hand, where Treadwell saw his own role in quasi-messianic terms as the champion and defender of his beloved bears, Bittner, who actually seems to be helping the birds, self-deprecatingly minimizes his place in their lives: The flock, he says, would fare just fine without him. And, of course, it helps that the birds can’t eat him.
Shooting in 16mm without the benefit of the special equipment and big budgets that made March of the Penguins and especially Winged Migration so eye-popping, Irving captures some memorable images — a hilarious shot of a bird clearly grooving in time to music; lump-inducing footage involving a red-tailed hawk — but generally relies on the birds’ natural photogenic charm as well as the human dimensions of the drama to sustain the 83-minute film.
The conures have been the subject of some controversy, in part due to concerns that as a non-native species they could pose some threat to the ecosystem. Non-indigeneous species sometimes become invasive and harmful in a new environment, where, in the absence of specific natural checks and balances from their native environment keeping their numbers under control, they begin to rapidly multiply, competing with and crowding out native species. (For example, whatever keeps the Chinese Ailanthus tree or “tree of heaven” in check in China isn’t a factor in the New York area where I live. Originally established in Central Park for its exotic tropical look, the “tree of heaven” has become the tree from hell, inexorably marching up and down the Eastern seaboard displacing native trees.)
In this case, though, the conures don’t show any signs of taking over San Francisco. On the contrary, as smart and savvy about local dangers as they seem to be, the conures prove just as susceptible as native species to hawks and dangers such as viruses. Even so, they may be holding their own; and the film’s triumph is that you want them to hold their own, to remain a bold splash of local color in a city that already has more than its fair share.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.