Parrot trap: The birdman of Telegraph Hill

In what's shaping up as the decade of the documentary, non-narrative films are breaking into subcategories. Fahrenheit 9/11 reached a mass audience through a combination of topicality and publicity. Most documentaries depend on smaller affinity groups while occasionally one (e.g., What the #$*! Do We Know?) will build a cult despite having no predefined audience.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill seems to be falling into the last category. It will have some appeal for those who go to see nature films, but it's also drawing people who seem to appreciate the fact it doesn't have the polish of the likes of Winged Migration.

Judy Irving says she was wanting to do something more personal than nature documentaries when she heard about Mark Bittner, a man with no visible means of support who was living rent-free on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, feeding and looking after a flock of wild parrots.

If you're not familiar with San Francisco, Bittner may seem a bit offbeat, but there he blends easily. He says he came there from Seattle almost 26 years ago in search of rock-and-roll stardom. After that didn't work out, he set out on "more of a spiritual path than a career path" and lived on the street for 15 years, taking occasional temp jobs as long as they required no commitment.

A gig as a caretaker brought him to Telegraph Hill, where he started watching birds in his abundant free time. Urban legends about the parrots abound, but apparently some were shipped from South America to be sold as pets and somehow got loose in the wilds of San Francisco, where they gave birth to more.

Bittner began feeding the parrots, who got closer to him than most humans. When they were sick or injured, he would take them into his cottage until they recovered. One bird, Mingus (he's named dozens of them), prefers being inside and stays there most the time. Bittner tells us Mingus has Jekyll and Hyde personalities as Irving's camera catches him being both calm and feisty.

In one scene Bittner gets out his guitar and sings to his captive audience, like Dave Matthews in the pet shop in Because of Winn-Dixie.

We meet a few other birds, notably Connor, the only blue-headed parrot in a flock of redheads. When Sophie's partner, Picasso, disappears, Bittner tries to fix her up with the lonely Connor; but it doesn't take. We don't meet Tupelo, but we see pictures of her and hear the story of her death.

Before befriending the birds, Bittner was apparently something of a loner. He says he found the beats "too down" and the hippies "too airy." He grew his hair long and promised himself he wouldn't cut it "until I found a girlfriend."

Although Bittner is introduced answering tourists' questions about the parrots and his relationship with them, and the film paints him as a St. Francis figure, he doesn't have a lot of support for his efforts. For one thing, the parrots– except perhaps when they're sick or wounded– would be as well off without him. There's plenty for them to eat, and he can't protect them from their natural enemies, the hawks. For another, environmentalists are concerned with preserving indigenous species, not non-natives like the parrots.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill will entertain just about everyone, but it will divide viewers into two camps. Some will join me in thinking Bittner is projecting his own thoughts and feelings onto the birds, but those who have been close to critters themselves will side with the birdman and perhaps even accept his self-analysis: "I don't think of myself as an eccentric."