Friday, March 11, 2005

Telegraph Hill should be a San Francisco landmark familiar to moviegoers. Coit Tower, which commands a scenic vista of the North Beach waterfront, the bay, Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge, was invoked for the title of “The House on Telegraph Hill,” a 1951 romantic suspense thriller directed by Robert Wise. A steep flight of steps leading to the top has been a magnet for several movies, including “Petulia” and “Dying Young.”

During the late 1990s, the hill acquired a different sort of local renown and tourist curiosity as the habitat of a flock of wild parrots. Their nearest human observer and protector, Mark Bittner, a failed musician living in a small cottage on the hill, became an esteemed city eccentric by devoting most of his time to feeding, observing and sometimes sheltering the birds.

Judy Irving’s “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” is a beguiling summary of how Mr. Bittner acquired belated focus and purpose through his love affair with the birds.

Burly, bearded and soft-spoken, Mr. Bittner projects a benevolent amateurism that is easy to like at first glance; he grows more engaging as the movie inquires into the body of self-taught knowledge accumulated during 15 years or so of systematic bird-watching.

Mr. Bittner surmises that his parrots, mostly red-crowned conures of South American origin, began breeding in the arboreal patches of residential North Beach after being abandoned by pet owners in scattered parts of the city. Although sufficiently fond of the flock, which numbers 40 to 50, to name many individuals and be absolute about their individuality, Mr. Bittner seems to have avoided the pitfalls of anthropomorphic sentimentality and special pleading.

It’s gratifying to hear him testify before a city commission that the most prudent approach to conservation would be to let the flock be. He never seeks a special protected status for the birds, whose territory is relatively small but vulnerable at certain seasons to hawk attacks.

In fact, it’s fascinating to learn that Mr. Bittner himself was resented by a purist ecological group that lobbies to banish all “invasive species” from the Bay Area. Applied with draconian consistency, such roundups and expulsions would eliminate virtually every form of animal and vegetable life found in the region.

A deft photographer of birds at close quarters or on the wing, Miss Irving also proves an unassuming interviewer. She is coy about certain developments in order to protect a kicker that comes as a witty and satisfying surprise.

Various aspects of the Bittner resume in his underemployed hippie years remain hazy. So does the web of relationships that kept him in place on Telegraph Hill for several years. We seem to meet different sets of generous landlords who never insisted on charging rent for the cottage. Anyway, it’s to everyone’s credit that Mark Bittner could depend on the kindness of strangers who became benefactors.

TITLE: “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill”

RATING: G (Adult subject matter and treatment, with some allusions to illness and fatalities among bird species)

CREDITS: Produced, directed, photographed and edited by Judy Irving. Additional photography by James Attwood, Howard Munson, Mark Bittner andJacquelyne Cordes. Sound by Jaime Kibben and Samuel Lehmer

RUNNING TIME: 83 minutes



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