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For the Love of Birds,
This review is from: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (DVD)
This gentle documentary features Mark Bittner, an aging hippy and once-musician living in San Francisco, and the birds he loves, a flock of now-wild and breeding cherry-headed conures (and a few hangers-on) who reside in the city's trees. Viewers who don't have experience with the intelligence and antics of the parrot family might approach this film the way one of the tourists does at the beginning when he says, "If they have names, then they can't be wild." Viewers will soon understand the unique niche these parrots have forged for themselves in the urban environment. Non-native and yet able to find food because of imported landscape plants, these birds swoop over the hills in a raucous flock and have become as much a part of San Francisco as the more numerous pigeons.
Filmmaker Judy Irving captures Bittner's need to do right by the parrots with loving photography and soft-spoken questions. When she asks her most pointed question, "What is the difference between you and the pigeon lady?", Bittner pauses for several beats before finally answering, with some pain, "I don't know." But we do know by then. His feeding the birds might not be any different but his curiosity about them and his drive to protect them distinguishes him. Irving has managed to portray, through Bittner's interactions and thoughts about "his" flock, the individuality of the birds: Mingus, an escaped conure who would rather live inside with Bittner than outside; Connor, the lonely blue-headed conure who inhabits the fringes of the cherry-headed society but who values his freedom over companionship; little nerve-damaged Sophie whose poignant devotion to her mate Picasso is heart-breaking; and, most touching of all, the cripple Tupelo who adores her trips into the garden while cradled in Bittner's hands. When a city councilman reveals that some environmentalists wanted the birds captured and exterminated since they are considered invaders, viewers will be horrified since, unlike the environmentalists, they have come to know and love these birds.
Irving provides context for the man/bird relationship through interviews with a lorikeet zookeeper at the San Francisco zoo, the locals who have their own theories about how the flock came to be, politicians, and tourists. This film is not a hard-hitting documentary since it fails to fully explore the underlying conditions and politics of the situation. Instead, it is a tribute to Bittner and the individual parrots he adopts as his friends. Viewers who cannot get enough of the conures will be delighted with the DVD extras, several of which follow up on events.
The film shows how right Bittner's fatalistic sixties' philosophy can be: if something doesn't work out, then it wasn't meant to be. You just have to wait for the right calling to come along. In Bittner's case, he has become a champion not only of these conures but of animal right/intelligence in general. -- Debbie Lee Wesselmann