More than four decades ago the San Francisco Bay area gave us “Birdman of Alcatraz,” a movie about a convict in the infamous prison who befriended the birds that flocked around the island and became an authority on them. Now the same region offers a view of a birdman of quite a different sort in this sweet-natured documentary that focuses on Mark Bittner, an affable slacker type who discovered a purpose in his rather aimless life feeding the flock of tropical parrots (escapees from importation services, it would appear) that were nesting in the area of North Beach, where he’d taken a job as caretaker. His avocation eventually made him as knowledgeable about the behavior of the birds as one could become, as well as a minor local celebrity, and the notoriety brought him to the attention of filmmaker Judy Irving, who spent a year recording his activities. (Bittner has also written a best-selling book about his years tending to the birds, and also maintains a website with information about them.)
What comes across nicely in this small but charming movie is the likableness of Bittner himself and the real affection and concern he developed for the parrots, which he came to know so well that he could recognize each of them (and give them all names, too). A hint of crisis spices things up occasionally–there are those who object to non-native species of birds being allowed to nest in the area, and hawks that hunt and kill members of the flock, and, toward the close, a possible change in Bittner’s own circumstances. But for the most part the emphasis is on depicting the odd sort of friendship that develops between man and bird, with occasional asides on the easygoing California atmosphere that nurtured it. (Among the people we meet are the couple that allowed Bittner to remain for years rent-free in a cottage on property they’d purchased as he watched over the parrots.)
By its close “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” has become a tale of free spirits on both sides of the equation–a man who’s avoided close ties all his adult life and a flock that’s survived on its own in a potentially hostile environment–each of whom found support from the other. It’s a nice story, and it’s nicely told.