Mark Bittner isn’t a movie actor, but he is one of the stars of a charming new film, a documentary by Judy Irving in which he shares the screen with a flock of parrots that have made a home in San Francisco. Bittner visited Dallas recently to talk about “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” a small but immensely winning tale of Bittner’s six-year companionship with the birds, which he got to know collectively and individually while he lived in the area.

Bittner came to the city on the bay from Washington State, where he’d grown up, in the seventies, hoping to become a singer. “Sometimes I’m depicted as a failed musician,” he said, “but I wasn’t really a failed musician, because I always had this nagging doubt that I had any business trying to be a musician. But it was so appealing to me. You have secondary talents that you shouldn’t follow, and music was definitely a secondary talent for me. But I loved music, so I pushed myself to come down [to San Francisco]. But it became clear to me quite fast that I was in the wrong line of work.” He explained that at the time singers also had to be songwriters whose work was expected to reflect a special wisdom gained by experience, so he took steps that would bring him that experience. “I went on the street,” he said, “something I felt to succeed as a songwriter I had to do, because that was the myth of the time. And when the music fell apart, that part was still alive for me–that idea of following a path and finding wisdom. I was searching–and I didn’t know where to go, what to do. I’d wanted to be a writer once, but for complicated reasons I’d rejected writing, and I didn’t see myself ever going back to that, although it was always my natural ability. I just did odd jobs for a long time. But once I had a story to tell, [writing] just became obvious.”

That story was the relationship between Bittner and the flock of parrots–originally wild-caught cherry-headed conures brought from Ecuador and Peru to be sold as pets, but which escaped or were released and formed a flock–which he encountered in the early nineties and began to feed on his fire escape, while he was a caretaker for an elderly woman who lived in a house near the Hill. Over the years he not only fed the birds but studied them closely; he emphasized, however, that they remained free, not pets. “I probably had a lot to do with them getting a good start…I gave them the full bellies to explore the area on,” he opined. But the birds soon discovered sources of food in the neighboring trees and established their nesting area. “They’ve done just fine without me,” he added. At one point Bittner thought that he’d have to give up the hobby that was becoming a job, when the woman he was caring for died and the property was purchased by a married couple. “I was sort of hiding in [the cottage],” he recalled, “because I didn’t have anyplace to go. Then they bought the property. I would run into them in the neighborhood [and] we talked about everything except the fact that I was living on the property. It was really unnerving. But after a while, it became very apparent to me that I could stay. But we never discussed it.”

That gave Bittner the opportunity to keep up his observation of the flock. “That’s what fascinated me all the time during the six years–what was happening [in the flock],” he said. “Because a lot happens in a parrot flock. It’s a very active society, and the birds have a lot of personality. There’s always some strange thing happening that I would never [imagine]. Every time you think you know it all, suddenly there’s just something unbelievable.” And eventually he turned back to his first love–writing–to contribute to a web site on the birds started by someone else but eventually taken over by him and penning a book, also titled “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” published by Harmony Books in hardcover and Three Rivers Press in paperback.

It was another piece of Bittner’s writing–an article he wrote on the flock for a magazine called “Bird Talk” in 1995–that first attracted Irving’s interest. But it took the filmmaker, who’d previous credits include the Sundance-award winning “Dark Circle” about the nuclear industry and who’d worked with Michael Moore on “Roger & Me,” several years to connect with him and arrange to tell his story on celluloid. Finally they got together and filmed the story in 1998 and 1999 (after eighteen months apart, Bittner recalled, the birds “were a little bit hesitant to come to me, but it only took about a minute before they overcame their reluctance”), shooting some thirty-five hours of film, including the opening scene, where some passers-by encounter Bittner and the parrots and ask him questions about them. (“It’s Memorial Day,” he recalled. “Every time there’s a holiday, there’s two staircases on the east side of Telegraph Hill, so you get a lot of tourists going up and down the stairs, and that’s what she wanted–to attract a bunch of people.”) They also incorporated video footage Bittner himself had shot in earlier years, and even enlisted a parrot to stand in for a deceased one in telling the latter’s story. A full year was spent, as Bittner put it, compiling “a huge data base for every shot–it took a year to log all the footage,” and Irving “had to shape that kind of understanding [I had of the birds] for the audience in the editing.”

Eventually the final cut made it to the festival circuit in 2004, and was picked up for distribution by Shadow Distribution, based in Maine; it’s now making its way across the country, increasing the number of prints in the process (from the original twenty, there are now forty-eight in circulation). The embrace of the picture at so many theatres seems to have gone a long way to accomplishing Bittner’s main goal, which was to protect the flock against the move among many to remove non-native species from the American environment. “That worried me a lot,” he said. “My first concern was to make them popular enough so that the state wouldn’t dare [take action against them]. The film has made them very popular.”

And changed Mark Bittner’s life considerably.