The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Each month I will contribute a review of a book or film on the subject of Pet Travel to A Traveler’s Library. You can find my latest review at Parrots? In San Francisco?

Here’s a riddle. How is building a relationship with an animal like taking a trip?

Give up?

You’ll feel like a stranger, there might be diarrhea involved, and you’ll learn things that will change you forever.

Pet Travel Thursday – The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Although the point of Pet Travel Thursday is to review books that talk about traveling with pets, I decided to break away from that constraint a little by reviewing a film that will make you want to travel to see some amazing animals in their wild (although not native) state.

Documentary filmmaker Judy Irving had been filming seabirds around San Francisco when she began noticing a flock of parrots. People told her about the man who fed the parrots and studied them.

The Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Phillip Bouchard on FlickrWhen Irving met the man, Mark Bittner, she didn’t think he would be very good on film. So she conceived of a new idea and relied on the advice of Bittner to make it work.

But as the filmmaker got to know Bittner better, she saw the relationship he had developed with the birds. He had observed the birds so carefully and so long that he was able to distinguish between them, recognize their offspring, and understand their natures. The resulting film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, explores the relationship between a man and a flock of parrots.

Animals Change Us…If We Let Them

When Mark Bittner began observing the birds, it was just idle curiosity. Where did they come from? Could he coax them into approaching him for food?

He didn’t think the birds would have a big impact on how he lived or thought about animals.

But then he met Tupelo.

During several springs, young parrots came down with a mysterious illness. In their weakened state they were vulnerable to predators and even other parrots. Bittner would occasionally bring one of these ill birds into his home to keep it warm, feed it, and give it a chance of recovering enough to be released.

Tupelo was an affectionate bird. At night, Bittner would pick her up to rest on the bed beside him while he read. One night, when he picked her up, Bittner felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. At first, he didn’t understand what he was feeling. But he came to realize it was coming from Tupelo.

When it was time for bed, the fragile bird had to go back on the floor so she wouldn’t be crushed. And as he placed Tupelo on the floor, he again experienced a rush of emotions coming to him like a message—regret, sorrow.

When he awoke, Tupelo was nowhere to be found. He eventually found her dead, under the heater.

In watching the film and reading Bittner’s book about the birds, I got the sense that he was shocked by his response to Tupelo’s death. Afterwards he was unable to speak to anyone for three days. And he felt burdened by regret for not being with Tupelo when she died. He hadn’t meant to be changed by interacting with the birds. But he was.

Bittner mentioned a few times in the film and the book that he was afraid of being considered eccentric. And he had trouble talking to a local bird expert because he tripped over his words trying not to be anthropomorphic. But eventually he couldn’t escape from the fact that he had developed relationships with some of these birds. And that they weren’t really that different from us.

As Bittner stated in the film, “They’re afraid of death. They’re afraid of injury. They’re afraid of being alone. Like us.”

Seeing the Wild Parrots in San Francisco

Telegraph Hill at Sunset by Robert Schlie on FlickrShortly after seeing the film, I got to travel to San Francisco. It’s a lovely city. It’s one of those unique places that you wouldn’t confuse for any other place in the world.

Yes, it has beautiful architecture. And the setting on the bay can’t be beat. You’ll find great food and bookstores. But when I got off the ferry, my first stop was Telegraph Hill—to look for the parrots.

It was late in the afternoon. Dozens of birds were sitting in the trees as I walked up the Greenwich steps. The loud screeching was unlike anything I had ever heard on a city street. And as the flock got the alarm, they took off in a rush of green that stood out against the grey sky.

Many people think you need to escape the city to experience nature. But nature is stronger than buildings and paving and human destructiveness. If humans disappeared from the earth, nature would reclaim Manhattan in a matter of months.

Nature—yes, altered by human intervention—is everywhere. And a huge flock of wild parrots is one way nature expresses herself in San Francisco.

Something Wagging and Wild Parrots

If you’ve been coming by Something Wagging This Way Comes for a while, you know that I’m fascinated with the human and animal bond. And not because I’m an expert on it or particularly good at building relationships. But because I believe we need to be open to life-changing experiences to be fully human.

Learning from and loving animals is one, very powerful life-changing experience.

It doesn’t have to be. You can have a dog that you let out in the back yard and pet absent mindedly while you watch tv just like you can travel to a new country and never eat anywhere but McDonald’s or make no attempt to speak a new language.

Learning what animals think and feel and what motivates them is exciting. It opens us up. That’s what Mark Bittner learned from his involvement with the parrots in his Telegraph Hill neighborhood. And it’s what we learn every day with our own dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, guinea pigs…

In future reviews for Pet Travel Thursday, I hope to explore ways that traveling and animals can open us to new ways of viewing the world. Can you help me?

What books have you read about pet related travel? Anything you can recommend?

And don’t forget to stop by my review at A Traveler’s Library where you can see a trailer for the film and learn more about the amazing setting.

[Photos are from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license. You can find them here and here.]

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  1. I love that, “Animals change us…..if we let them.” That’s the key, “if we let them.” We have to open ourselves up and feel and see things differently than we do. I would have to say your heart isn’t totally whole until you have loved an animal.

    That was a lovely review and btw, I am giving you the “HUG” award, you can read all about it here….

  2. I always joked that the only birds I could identify in NYC were pigeons, and I couldn’t have been less interested in them (except for bouts of revulsion). Over time, and especially with my growing interest in dogs, I began to open up my mind to other creatures, too. Thanks for this wonderful review of a film that clearly changed your perspective too — after all, the first thing you did when you arrived in SF was to look for the parrots!

  3. I love San Francisco… this makes me want to return there ASAP! Like Edie, I was never really interested in birds, but I think that over time I’ve become more interested in creatures beyond dogs (despite my blog name). I’m interested in seeing this film, for sure.

  4. I’ve always had a fear of birds, most especially highly intelligent species like parrots, ravens, and other corvids. As a child, every time I walked into a pet store and saw a large parrot staring back at me, I got a chill. There was something a little too knowing in their eyes.

    Now that I know a little bit more about animals, I have more respect for birds than I do fear. There is so much we don’t understand but I do believe they are far more intelligent than anyone gives them credit for and capable of many amazing things.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I didn’t get a chance to see the film yet but it’s on my list. My best friend and I are actually in the process of planning a birthday trip to SF. It may not be this year but when we do go, I plan on stopping by Telegraph Hill.

  5. Now i have two cities I want to visit before I die: NYC and San Francisco. Have the documentary in my Netflix queue. “They fear death?” Hmmm….need to watch that film.

  6. What a great story! And beautiful photography! Thanks for suggesting this film for the Book Club, because I would never have known about it otherwise. The relationship between Mark and the birds was very touching and yet, they were still able to be free and wild. I think that is the greatest gift we can give animals, to let them be who they are.

  7. I’ve never seen the parrots on Telegraph Hill – you’re so lucky Pamela! I did see a flock of wild parrots in the park in Austin a few weeks ago. It was amazing … like you said, they were such a beautiful green against the color of the sky.

  8. What a cool story – I’m going to put it in my Netflx queue right now! Thanks for sharing such a lovely review!!

  9. That is awesome!! It’s so nice to be the only crazy one who has this spiritual relationship with animals. I think when we just sit and listen, animals tell us so much about themselves, ourselves, the world around us. Humans can be so narrow minded in thinking we are the only ones who can think and feel or have any intelligence. Which is too bad because like you stated they can teach us many things about how to actually be.

    Great review Pamela. I’ll have to remember to look this film up. :)

  10. The film is fascinating,but I am even more fascinated by your thoughtful analysis. In the short time I have been reading your blog, I have realized it is much more than a pet blog–it is filled with lessons for living. Thanks for sharing your insights with the readers at A Traveler’s Library.

  11. Oh, choke. Poor Tupelo. :'(

    I love birds – in the wild. Just never had the urge to have one as a pet (probably because of the cats), but my mother-in-law has a parrotlet (sp?) that she treats like a child and that bird is soooo bonded to her. It really is fascinating – how birds are capable of having human relationships (guess that does for rats and snakes, etc., too).

    I’m sure the film is just as wonderful as your review is. Congrats on the new deal at A Traveler’s Library. I read your bio there, too. How cool that you got to finish school in Europe! I hope to get there one day before I’m decrepit. :)

  12. I keep meaning to watch that movie too, but I don’t know if I could handle the part about Tupelo. I fully believe that about birds–the connections they are capable of. Such social, incredible creatures.