The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

For the last week or so, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, has been playing on the tube. I was aware that it was going to be on, but I’ve been focused on my new book, Street Song, so only “vaguely aware.” It took me a little by surprise when I suddenly began receiving a torrent of e-mails about the film. I’ve tried to keep up with them, but they’ve finally overwhelmed me. I hope to get around to answering them all eventually, but for the time being it’s impossible.

When we started the film, my hope was simply to have a visual record of the experience before I had to move on. It is extremely gratifying that the film, which depicts events that happened 11 and 12 years ago, and was released into theaters six years ago, has such “legs.” Both Judy and I thought it was good, but we both knew, too, that you can’t presume that a project will succeed based on its quality alone. So many other factors come into play. In fact, Parrots had an extremely difficult time breaking into the film festival circuit. The gate keepers there tend to be postmodernists who have little use for this kind of movie. But it did well on the art house circuit. It was one of the last to succeed there before the circuit essentially shut down. And it’s done well on DVD, Netflix, iTunes, and PBS.

People often ask, “Which came first, the book or the film?” I was already working on the book when I met Judy. Both projects were done entirely separate from one another. My book is not the same as the film. It covers the full six years of the experience and goes into aspects and individual parrot friends of mine that the film never touches upon. My book did get somewhat buried by the film. More people watch movies than read books, and a lot of people assume that, because they have the same title, the book is simply a rehashing of the movie, which it isn’t. They are complementary, but not the same. (Others assume the film was based on the book, which it wasn’t.) In the film, I’m shown taking photos of the birds, and it is implied that I see a possibility of making a living from my photos. In reality, we had both agreed that it would cheapen the film if we used it to advertise the book, so the photos were meant to symbolize me beginning to make a creative living out of my experience. This is the advertisement!

P. S. After posting this I went for a ride on my bike. I stopped at the Warming Hut, a small cafe/bookstore out by the Golden Gate Bridge, and saw that the paperback, unbeknownst to me, has just gone into a tenth printing.

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34 Responses to “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”

  1. Karen Says:

    I noticed in today’s SF Chronicle’s TV listings that the film will be aired tonight on Channel 9 KQED at 9:30 p.m. (Independent Lens).

    Happily, I own it so I can watch it whenever I want! I also own the book. Both are delightful, insightful, and heartwarming. Thank you, Mark. Thank you, Judy.

    P.S. I saw (and heard!) the parrots as I got off the #1 California bus near Justin Herman Plaza last week. They seemed healthy and happy, at least they were very active and talkative. I got to tell a young man who was staring up at them in amazement that, yes, they are parrots, and yes, parrots do live in San Francisco. I also gave him the title of your book and film.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes, the flock is doing quite well. I plan on participating in a flock count at some point this month, which will give some idea of their numbers. I think they’ve broken into more than one group now, though.

  2. Linda Fairchild Says:

    And there are extraordinary photos of that time in Mark’s life. His original photography is available for sale at http://www.lindafairchild.com. These photographs, hand signed by Mark, are unique to that time and each photograph is accompanied by his writings and observations. So Mark the writer is very much Mark the visual artist as well.

  3. Rob Phillips Says:

    The film is excellent, but I am fan of the book. I love to read and Mark is a great writer/story teller. It also helped that I have been to San Francisco a couple of times and could identify the neighbourhoods in the book. The book is a ‘re-read’ for me, one that I go back to every year or so.

  4. A fan Says:

    Tenth printing? You’ve obviously done something right. And your mother obviously did something right. You are a beautiful soul inside and out, Mark.

  5. JB Says:

    In my opinion, the book and film stand alone but are complementary because of the synergy that results from relationship that blooms between two such creative, sensitive people. I am equally and eagerly awaiting both Street Song and Judy’s film about Pelicans. Keep it up!

  6. Jeffrey Draper Says:

    I have just finished the film from Netflix streaming. I’m so glad that you and Judy are doing so well and happy together. That is the happy ending that I was hoping for with this story. I live at Castro and Market and the parrots (yours or another flock) torment my dog every day when they fly by. She runs around the apartment barking at them, hoping to scare them away from what she feels is their daily invasion.

    The film taught me a great deal about the parrots and their history. My thanks to you and Judy for being such wonderful storytellers. Congratulations on the continued success of your work! Happy New Year!

  7. pamela alemaP Says:

    enjoying film. painful death about Connor. I think he missed you and had no one left to hold him here. I am angry they kicked you out. for your efforts you should have been given a house and money and help. This world is very slow to evolve.
    YOu should have been supported. Criticizing you about anthromorphisizing the parrots is a joke. We humans do not hesitate to interfere with the world to the negative constantly but when it comes time to give a penguin fledgling a heater or move some lions away from an aggressive clan oh no, we wouldn’t want to interfere. Or shoot some seagulls that torment whales for miles.
    We need to use good judgement and do our best to determine when ‘interference’ may be justified and our responsiblity and approached with as broad and long-term a view as possible. Really, we are just being selfish and lazy when we do nothing, and how do we know that the aware of our presence lions weren’t expecting help or a warning from their watching friends. We are just ridiculous when we don’t include ourselves in ‘nature’.
    You were doing important work. Connor was important. He could have been given a purchased mate. Where would the harm have been?
    I have always watched and been aware of the hawks. I saw one catch a pigeon once across from me (live on 2nd floor)and eat it on a roof. It was a fearful sight. I adore pigeons, as a city dweller they are the only wildlife I get to see.
    I have never seen the parrots, though I have lived here 20 years.
    I would like to see them someday.
    I will purchase your book soon. The few people I know of your and your wife’s caliber are my neighbors, relatives and my political friends from Code Pink, although I don’t protest much anymore. I do despise Nancy Pelosi. I camped at her house for two weeks (with the group) once, and fasted. I guess I was hoping for change.
    I also worked for Cindy Sheehan when she ran. San Francisco didn’t deserve someone as good as her. She won’t run again. They missed out.
    You two are great. It did me good to see good people caring about animals and recognizing how profoundly important each one is. It was a great journey to follow visually, and well documented.
    Thanks you two.
    Hey, do you have any birds?

    • markbittner Says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the film. Once you read the book you’ll see that my “landlords” were not villains at all. And many people have this perception of Connor as “missing me.” Not so, and the book clarifies that. It’s impossible to get down all the nuances of reality in a movie. The book will fill in the gaps and then some. And yes. Judy and I do have birds. We’re caring for two permanently debilitated members of the flock as well as Judy’s 22-year-old cockatiel.

  8. David Holt Says:

    Wonderful, Mark. The film and the book have legs, in the same way the parrots have wings… It was great meeting you and Judy after Linda showed me the video. So much of our society is disconnected from nature, in whatever form it may take around us. Parrots and pelicans remind us of that. Lately I have been seeing bald eagles in Nova Scotia and meeting some native people from here and Alaska. There is a thread there.

  9. Margaret Says:

    I’ve given both the book and film as gifts, and they’re always greeted happily.

    Mark, one question about Connor: in one of the film’s “extra” scenes, a neighbor describes how she discovered what she thinks was his body (unmarked and unmaimed), and respectfully buried it. Her conclusion was that he just peacefully dropped dead, and had not been captured and eaten by a hawk. I’d like to believe that, but what is your own opinion?

    • markbittner Says:

      If my memory serves me well, that question was answered in the “extra.” What we think happened—it’s fairly certain—is that the hawk did have Connor on the chimney. But the hawk was being harassed by several ravens, who chased the hawk out of their territory. We assume that the hawk dropped Connor as he was fleeing.

  10. Bobbi Says:

    I’m smiling…such an emotional film! I’m ordering the book…
    Thank you!

  11. LindaTobin Says:

    I saw the film when it first came out and was touched by the gentle interaction and love of the birds.
    Tonite as a surprise it was airing and we watched again and enjoyed it as well.
    I did not realize there was a book.
    I hope you are happy and well.
    Would love to hear how you are.

  12. pamela alemaP Says:

    I didn’t think your landlords were villains. I did think Connor gave up without you. I also think that Audubon society, or the city here (since it is a tourist attraction and an information source) should have hired you, or the zoo, or some other animal preservation society should have paid you.
    It is ridiculous to abandon our appointment (by virtue of our species) as stewards and protectors of the earth and its inhabitants by labeling them ‘invasive species’. We should be aware and responsible. We had no problem ‘introducing’ them for our own reasons as pets, but once they are set loose or abandoned we ignore our them?
    Plus they are just cool, surviving in a foreign habitat and teaching us about the complexities and difficulites of their lives through your wife and yourself.
    It was wonderful learning.
    You work should have been acknowledged and validated and supported by the communitiy, financially, is what I mean. your book money should be extra, your contribution to us humans is so absolute by your behavior.
    I like it when you said, i do work I just don’t get paid for it–
    I am glad you followed your heart and did what your soul dictated. We are enriched because you did in a way that can’t be measured financially. I am just bummed you aren’t still there, after having been given a house of your own there, and social legitimacy for your work itself. I wish you were still building relationships with the bird, you and your wife together, and branching out in other ways that are inclusive, maybe even taking on proteges from the universities around here to study and follow where you lead.
    Jane Goodall broke a lot of territory by not following scientific methods and assigning names to the chimps she was studying. She ended up changing how we view animals and record their habits.
    You are evolved past the scientists because you follow your heart. Your work is more important than theirs is in many ways. It is only now that we are starting to realize how big a part of our scientific studies reflect our contemporary ideas about what is ‘scientific’ and important.If you ask me, scientific is a dirty word.
    It is only now we are learning how interdependent everything is. Watch the Ted talks with Janine Beyus she covers this stuff while explicating about the amazing new field ‘biomimicry’. You will love it.
    Trees share fertilizer with other trees through a system of roots.We know so little.
    We completely have our heads up our asses with this invasive species crap.
    If a species is causing a problem after being accidentally introduced through human accident or intention, we should put our best heads together and get as broad and long term a picture as we can and do the best we can to expand and shift the situation to a more advantageous balance instead of trying to control everything and everyone after the fact. The birds are here.
    They belong here now. Or we should shut up and trap them and take them home.
    Whatever. I just hate the deliberate blindness about our contribution in bringing them here so we can abdicate responsiblity aftet the fact.
    And with responsiblity comes enjoyment, and vice versa.
    Responsiblity means relationship and like life that is both a blessing and a curse. Cheers, and Happy New Year

  13. Diane Says:

    I have a pet bird like Conner. I have had my bird 18 years. She is a friend. She loves me and follows me around the house. I saw the movie Paulie because of my bird. I saw Wild Parrots because of my bird. My bird pre-dates both movies. Of course, neither movie is anything like the other. And my reason for liking Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and for buying the book are more than just because I have a similar bird. I loved the part at the end about the river and all the drops of water in the waterfall representing how all of creation are one and separate at once. That was the part that made me want to learn more about your life on the streets and makes me look forward to reading your book when it is complete.

  14. Willa Says:

    We just bought a conure and subsequently saw your film. I love the tone of it, of warmth and peace. I fell in love with these birds. Very inspiring movie! BTW, I also liked your response to the Ann lady’s comment below.

  15. Ken Says:

    I saw the rebroadcast last week. This film is just a wonderful film. It just makes me glad to live in SF. I’ve been following the flock for three years now. I just noticed a subset that frequents GGP near Masonic and Fell.

  16. Chandani Diaz Says:

    We saw the film on PBS and ordered the book. It came yesterday and I can’t put it down. Too bad I have to go to work today or I’d stay home and read it. My daughter and I saved a starling (it was the first bird I’d ever held). My husband tried to save a pigeon…some teens were kicking it (others had been kicking the starling we rescued)…what is it with cruelty towards living beings? Anyway….he brought the pigeon home and we even joined a pigeon forum to ask for help. They were most helpful and encouraging. However, the next morning he was dead. The forum said he must’ve had internal trauma. They were so kind to us and understand our grief….everyone ELSE couldn’t see our grief over a “street bird”. The forum still keeps in touch and some in the group were kind enough to thank us for letting the pigeon have a restful night in a loving home. It’s been 2 months and we still can’t get over the loss. Just as there are cruel and indifferent people in this world, there are also very many with kind hearts….for humans and all beings.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes, I’m frequently appalled by the way some people go after pigeons. I usually say something. But it’s strange when it’s kids and the parents are right there and indifferent to what’s happening.

    • Sarah Says:

      Chandani, my heartfelt thanks to you, your husband, and your daughter for what you did for the starling and pigeon. I wish more people shared your values. You and your husband must be excellent parents. Kudos to you!

  17. Chandani Diaz Says:

    To Sarah & Mark – in the case of the starling (I’m very outspoken when it’s to defend a living being) I told those boys “don’t you even DARE think of kicking that bird again; it is MINE now” (and the starling we turned over to a friend who is a wildlife rescuer; it did fine and eventually flew away after care. My husband is a naturalized U.S. citizen who still lives looking over his shoulder for “Immigration” (although he needn’t), so he tends to be shy and reluctant to speak out to anyone although his heart is golden. I hope SOMEDAY to search within myself to find just what it is I’m meant to do on this earth (besides rescue people and animals). As a Hindu, I take the vow of “ahimsa” (non-harm to any living creature) seriously….even spiders get carried out the door in our house. I’m 56 years old and still don’t have a clue what I want to be “when I grow up”. Meditation helps greatly, and I’ve found great insight in Mark’s book…..and looking forward to his next book as well. I work to help pay the bills but there is no passion in my work; it’s a job. It (plus my husband’s job which is even more demanding) has helped us travel to Nepal twice in order to adopt our daughter whose fate as an orphaned girl would very likely have been being “trafficked” to a brothel in Mumbai. But surely there must be MORE to achieve in this lifetime?

  18. Chandani Diaz Says:

    The book was lovely. But my husband wished I’d bought the DVD – he works sometimes 18-hr. shifts as a paramedic and if he picks up a book at that point, he’s out like a light. So now we have the book and I just ordered the DVD as a surprise for my husband.

  19. Linda Cook Says:

    I just finished reading your book, Mark, which I found emotionally compelling; and, I just ordered the DVD of the documentary with all the new updates from Pelican Media. I look forward to seeing it as I missed it when it was on PBS a month ago.

    Every one of your experiences led you to exactly where you were meant to be in this life; and, living your life in the most honest way one could led to all of us having the great honor and privilege of getting to know you and those wonderful birds if only just a little bit.

  20. Tawnya Juran Says:

    I just loved the documentary of The Birds on Telegraph Hill. What an amazing experience that must have been!! It is such a privilege for all of us who have been able to see your interactions with the Flock, and them with you! What buetiful birds they are!! I am so happy to hear you are caring for 2 of them still that needed a good friend and caretaker!! I just love birds and you have shed a greater light on them for all of us!! Thank You Mark & Judy!!!!

  21. Kathy Says:

    hi Mark, I just saw the film (made my day, loved it) and subsequently ordered the book…given some of the responses above where folks are sad or upset that you had to move or were not given a job (I was too!), if you had not needed to move, would there even have been a film? I think I read a statement of yours where you said (I paraphrase) ” I wanted to record the last year of my time with the flock”….

    • markbittner Says:

      There would have been a film regardless. Judy’s interest was the relationship between a human being and wild nature. She just showed up. I wasn’t looking for anybody to make a movie about us. I wouldn’t have known how to think that thought.

  22. Barbra Says:

    What a wonderful (and sad) insight into the survivors of the bird trading. I have two rescue conures. I try my best to give them a good life in captivity. But I totally see they are wild, wonderful birds that should not have been made pets. Thank you for your movie and book.

    • markbittner Says:

      It’s true that they should never have been brought out of the wild. But be their friend and they will be content. I don’t think there’s any need to feel sorrow for them.

  23. Barbra Says:

    Not sorrow for the SF wild parrots or other established colonies in the US. I just want people to understand all that is involved in keeping a pet parrot, there are hundreds of birds needing adoption as people are not educated for the amount of care a parrot requires. Think mischievious two year old for 25 to 75 years.

  24. margaret Says:

    A dear friend gave me your book when it first came out. As a conure owner and bird lover, I treasure the book and re-read it at least yearly. It is not just about conures. The lessons are infinite — which is probably why the book “has legs”…as you put it. I took that same dear friend and her daughter to see the documentary when it was first released to our local art film house. We loved it, so I also own the documentary. I only just found this “update” page and your blog, and look forward to more updates and to the release of the new book. I wish you and Judy well.

  25. Ashley Says:

    I cannot put into words how excellent this documentary was…everything happened in your life for a reason. I do not cry during movies, if I do it is rare, and I cried greatly. It makes me appreciate life more, you were happy with very little for years. It is nice to know someone loves animals…and senses their emotions like I do. Almost as if it is a 6th sense. I love your thoughts, heart, and gratitude. I cannot wait to buy the book!

    • markbittner Says:

      A lot of people wonder if the book is just a rehash or novelization of the movie. It’s not. Despite having the same title, they were both conceived of and done as separate projects. The film is entirely Judy’s, the book is entirely mine. Naturally, the book goes into much greater detail, telling the full six-year story. For reasons that would be inappropriate to mention here (it would be a spoiler), my favorite bird is never mentioned in the movie. So the book is a separate experience. I hope you enjoy it.

  26. Debra Says:

    I just saw this wonderful documentary tonight on Netflix. I have been moved spiritually by this film, and brought to tears at the beauty revealed. Thank you so much for sharing, and educating others about the parrots, and for all your good work . Thank you for your kindness. I love the analogy of the waterfall fractioning into droplets and coming together again at the bottom. We are truly all one!

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