Never before has ornithology provided such insight into the human condition. In “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” Judy Irving has found a story of surpassing beauty, and using her prodigious skill and sensitivity she has turned it into a powerful documentary that is whimsical and poignant.
The film tells the story of a homeless and purposeless street musician Mark Bittner who looks for a direction for his life. After 15 years of living on the streets of San Francisco, he finds that purpose almost by accident: During a stint as caretaker for a wealthy couple on the titular Telegraph Hill, he becomes intrigued by a flock of brightly plumaged parrots living in the neighborhood. Increasingly fascinated by the birds, he spends hours standing motionless on his deck until the birds become accustomed to his presence. Slowly, they become more than just a diversion. Bittner comes to know the personality and habits of each wild parrot, and is gradually drawn into the small dramas of their daily lives.
Bittner unabashedly shares these discoveries with the film’s audience. He introduces us to Mingus, the bird who refuses to leave the house, Connor, the lonely blue-crowned bird ostracized by his red-crowned peers, Pushkin, a single parent raising three fledglings, and Sophie and Picasso, lovers united by shared injuries and scars. He avidly observes the birds’ movements and moods, engrossed like a housewife watching “Days of Our Lives.” He even weaves fanciful stories around the events of the parrots’ lives. He envisions Sophie as a little French girl, for example, and says he can practically see the beret on her head. When Picasso dies, he begins plotting a possible new match for her.
“I’d like to see Connor and Sophie get together,” he says. “I think they’d be ideal for each other.”
Bittner’s love for the birds is obvious, and they seem to feel affection for him too. They perch on his fingers, eating seed from his hands; they allow him to cradle them and nuzzle their feathers. Irving has a wonderful sensitivity for noticing these moments, and showing them without intrusiveness or obviousness.
The documentary’s greatest strength is its ability to show the birds through Bittner’s eyes. It clearly would have fallen flat in the hands of a filmmaker unable to empathize with Bittner’s love for the parrots, but it is apparent from the beginning that Irving sees each bird as an individual and dynamic character. She gives each animal the perceptive attention of a fully-formed human character, demonstrating a delightful knack for anthropomorphization.
In one scene, Bittner tells us that when Mingus is “a bad bird,” all he has to do is place him outside for a few minutes. To demonstrate the happily domesticated Mingus’s terror of the wild outdoors, Irving zooms in on his head and the wide whites of his eyes. At first there is no sound, but one by one we hear sounds of animals rustling through the underbrush, cars racing through the streets and the screeches of hawks above. Each sound is layered over the last, until a panicking cacophony arises: we easily feel the little bird’s terror.
But the truly transcendent element of the film is not our connection with the birds, but our understanding of its human hero. Through the birds we learn about Bittner — seeing elements of him in Connor’s isolation and Sophie’s romantic frustration.
In turn, he learns from the birds what qualities he values in human beings, such as purity and straightforwardness. Irving subtly and artfully draws parallels between Bittner’s emotions and those he projects onto the birds. Ultimately, the documentary becomes a story of a man’s redemption and self-discovery — which is a rare feat.
It would be easy to adopt a lighthearted tone in portraying the life of an eccentric homeless man who wouldn’t talk to anyone for three days after his first wild parrot died. But Irving takes Bittner completely seriously. We see this in one of the few scenes she narrates, showing the death of Connor at the talons of hawks. Her voice is filled with a toneless grief as she shows a photo of Connor’s last moments. Because she believes in the importance of Bittner’s experiences and his story of redemption, we do too. As a result, “Wild Parrots” is impossible not to like.