Customer Reviews: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story . . .with Wings
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on January 28, 2004
When people from the Bay Area hoof it up Telegraph Hill in SF, they nearly always make the climb from the North Beach access points. It's steep as all get out, but it's not even slightly as steep as the Greenwich steps, which is the way people choose to descend from the famous hill. Rarely on those steps do I meet someone walking up - and when I do, I always notice what great calves they have.
Anyway, there are old cottages from probably the earthquake era situated along these steps, and in one of them lived the author of this delightful book, Mark Bittner. Once a down and out self-described "dharma bum," Bittner was given free lodging in return for caretaking one of the mansions higher on the hillside. Jobless and bored, he began spending his days making friends with the small flock of wild parrots who have made that side of Telegraph Hill their home. In the process, he found meaning in his own life for probably the first time. Now a celebrity, Bittner says "from being a homeless nobody, now I have a home, a girlfriend, a book, and a's hilarious!" He's become a SF personality and an expert on his parrots, cherry-headed and blue-crowned conures-escapees from a long-ago South American shipment.
This book is as delightful as Bittner himself, more informative than anything else on parrots that I've ever read, and more readable than some novels. It's a sure winner.
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on March 29, 2005
This wonderful memoir of Bittner's life with the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Franciso is vivid, bittersweet and extraordinarily moving.

Like Jane Goodall, Bittner entered the animal world with little scientific knowledge; his interaction with the flock of brilliantly-colored conures was motivated by both his fascination with the birds and his own spiritual path, the latter of which had led him to a life of contemplation and solitude. And, like Goodall, Bittner began his life with the animals as an observor (though he soon became their caretaker as well).

Looking at the flock through Bittner's keenly compassionate eyes is a revelation. While the book is seeded through with the scientific and historical facts that Mark picked up through occasional research, it is primarily an autobiography interwoven with the biographies of individual birds and bird pairs. What emerges in Bittner's portraits of the birds are creatures with distinct personalities, emotions, and intellects.

Bittner's story is not sacchrine. He traces, with bracing and sometimes devastating simplicity, the sometimes difficult lives of his companions. He witnesses births and deaths, couplings and splits, and cruel illnesses. In turn, he notes the changing nature of his relationship with the flock, which is itself not untroubled. He questions the path he's taken in life and struggles with the limits of his compassion and dedication. His self-criticism is amazing, given the extraordinary lengths to which he went to protect and nurture the birds.

I want to mention in particular the chapter entitlted, "Tupelo," which is the strongest testament to the worth and complexity of human-animal bonds that I have ever read. Some reviews have spoken of the power of Tupelo's story and its ability to alter the reader's perception of animals, and I thoroughly concur with that assessment. I ended this chapter in awe.

Bittner has given us an unlikely story about a most unlikely community, and it isn't quite like anything else you will ever read. I can't recommend it more highly.
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In 1988, Mark Bittner took a job as a housekeeper for an elderly woman in a building on San Francisco's famed Telegraph Hill. It offered a rent-free studio apartment, which was a real improvement for Bittner, a failed musician and occasional odd-jobber, who had recently been homeless. Little did he know at the time that the colorful noisy flock of birds outside his window would give his life purpose and allow him to find the perspective that he had sought through religion and philosophy. Like so many of us, he caught the bird-watching bug from observing his avian neighbors through his window. He felt compelled to learn about them, began to feed them, and embarked on the slow process of earning their trust. Unlike most of us, Mark Bittner's neighborhood birds were a flock of wild parrots, mostly cherry-headed conures. Some had been pets. Some were born in the wilds of San Francisco. They now all lived free in the city, eating from the trees in a nearby garden and from scattered bird feeders, and nesting in the local parks. Bittner set out to get to know these birds, with the hope of finding an avian friend who could remain free, yet enjoy his company. An odd goal perhaps, but, in interacting with the flock, Bittner got to know quite a few of the individual birds. Over the course of six years, he came to admire the standoffish but regal blue-crowned conure that he called Conner. He tried to save the lives of several juveniles who fell victim to a virus. He became too involved in flock politics. "The Parrots of Telegraph Hill" is a unique memoir of a man's relationship with a flock of parrots. Mark Bittner wasn't an avian expert and had to learn as he went along. He has an aimless personality that some readers may find annoying. But he's candid in recounting his failures, successes, and feelings about the birds. "The Parrots of Telegraph Hill" is an honest tale of love and self-discovery. Even if you don't find the author interesting, the birds are fascinating, and their behavior is described in detail. Also see the book's companion web site, [...] for color photos to accompany each chapter. The photos in the book are black-and-white.
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on March 14, 2005
I'm completely besotted by this gorgeous, honest, funny and heartwarming book. Even though it isn't available in Australia, I had it imported via a local bookshop.

If you're not a bird lover, you could become one after reading this book. If you are a bird lover like me, the book takes you on a deeply rewarding emotional journey. I fell in love, laughed and cried with every one of these feathery personalities. The book squeezed my heart, wrung it out, and filled it up, reminding me of the parrots I've met & loved in my life. The author's irrepressible urge to plant a kiss on his favourite birds and his willingness to share his meal with them made me smile because I know how that feels, and it may seem weird to non bird lovers. One also learns some interesting facts as the author has done some research in this area.

Mark's life intertwined with the birds' is also an interesting story. Some people may judge his unusual spiritual approach about not getting a job, but in the bigger picture, one can see how his spiritual journey led him to where he is today. He writes with a refreshing honesty, and comes through as a sensitive and compassionate soul.
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on February 25, 2005
I loved this book. It is the most human of stories. A man in search of himself and the world creatively finds a flock who finds him. Itis a gut wrenching story of love and boldness in the world. You DO NOT have to be a parrot lover to appreciate this very well written story. You will never see parrots the same way, or perhaps you will have the result I have had...we are all creatures of a flock. Highly recommended. See the film too! Bravo!
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on February 4, 2004
Mark Bittner's book is a honest personal evolution that does the author and his avian subjects proud. The respect and admiration Mark has for the mixed conure flock he became involved with translates wonderfully to the printed page, as well as to Judy Irving's documentary by the same title.
This book should be in every bird lover's library and anyone who's ever come to value a relationship with an intelligent being outside of Homo sapiens. Sometimes they have the most to teach us about ourselves. I am reminded of primate and cetacean researchers who get to know the social dynamics of primates and cetaceans in the wild; but this is more than a study of birds, it is a chronicle of parrot characters through health and sickness, the joy and dangers of an uncaged life.
I have read several reviews mentioning the photos in the book are in black and white. Personally I was glad to have those photos of the parrots on every chapter page, and especially one of Tupelo, who there was not footage of in the documentary though her story was related and was very moving. I think the cover, which is in color, is wonderful and very eye-catching.
I also love how Mark's own personality even comes across in the names he chose for the birds....often named after authors, philosophers, and artists he admires. And a couple from Van Morrison songs.
I am loaning this book to everyone I know who would read it!
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on October 13, 2005
This world is filled with undiscovered treasures. One day a penniless loner discovers a flock of wild parrots. As the story unfolds, the parrots discover him. Now the world discovers a gem with a talent for writing and a heart of compassion. Oh, that we could push past our prejudices and narrow-mindedness and see the intricate beauty that rests in a gang of noisy parrots, or within the cobwebbed walls of a hermit's hideaway.

Mark Bittner's book is not only an informative expose on wild parrot behavior, it is a wild success story that should give hope to the least of us.

---Marcia Croce Martin, author of "Bandy:The True Tale of a Courageous Cape Cod Canada Goose"
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on February 28, 2004
For one or two weeks every two months I live in an apartment at the base of Telegraph Hill, a place of true magic. I could not believe my ears the first time I heard the parrots, or my eyes, the first time I saw them! I soon found Mark Bittner's web site, complete with wonderful photos of the parrots and the story of his connection with them. What a pleasure, then, to find in my local Massachusetts book store, a copy of this wonderful book. Mr. Bittner takes us with him as his relationship with the parrots becomes inextricably woven into his life search for meaning. His study of the parrot's lives, first undertaken by chance, becomes a life's work of real interest to anyone who has an affection for animal life in general, or these amazing birds in particular.
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on March 1, 2006
I loved this story not only because of my interest in parrots, but as a result of Mark Bittner's relationship with the parrots he gained both poignant and touching lessons and a self discovery from such an unexpected source. Sometimes the things in life that we strive the hardest to find or understand come to us only when the time is right. As adults many of us go through periods of our lives when we struggle to find a purpose or a meaning for it all and I guess that is why this book touched me in the way that it did.
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on October 29, 2005
Suprisingly well written, although the latter parts get a bit weak. A heartfelt account, that pulls no punches and lets you inside his mind and heart. A true eccentric, but rare one, in that he lets you in...
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