The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story... with Wingsby Mark Bittner
Like a lot of young people in the 1970s, Mark Bittner took the path of the “dharma bum.” When the counterculture faded, Mark held on, seeking shelter in the nooks and crannies of San Francisco’s fabled bohemian neighborhood, North Beach. While living on the eastern slope of Telegraph Hill, he made a magical discovery: a flock of wild parrots. In this unforgettable story, Bittner recounts how he became fascinated by the birds and patiently developed friendships with them that would last more than six years. When a documentary filmmaker comes along to capture the phenomenon on film, the story takes a surprising turn, and Bittner’s life truly takes flight.
“A fascinating love story with wings.” —Boston Herald
“[A] charming memoir. For devoted birders everywhere.” —Reader’s Digest, Editor’s Choice
“[An] inspirational saga of one man finding his life’s meaning in the most serendipitous way.” —San Jose Mercury News
“Instructive, surprising, sweet.” —Gary Snyder, author of Turtle Island and Mountains and Rivers Without End
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- 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.60(d)
Read an Excerpt
I'm standing on the front deck of an old cottage on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. The cottage, vine-covered and frail, is nestled within the immense and chaotically lush gardens that tumble down the hill's steep eastern face. Just to my right is a large cage containing three lime-green parrots with cherry-red heads. On top of the cage, another parrot prowls at liberty. In my left hand, I'm holding a cup filled with sunflower seeds. Clinging to the cup's rim are two more parrots who are making quick and expert work of the seeds. There are parrots on my right hand, on my shoulders, and on my head.
In front of me, on the limbs of a tall shrub, are another dozen or so. They watch me with eager eyes as I pass around a handful of seeds. One of them, determined to get my attention, flaps his wings furiously, causing the thin branch he's perched on to bounce up and down. Five more parrots eat from a small pile of seeds on the deck railing. To my far right, a gang of fifteen crowds around a large, seed-filled dish that sits on the thick growth of ivy climbing over the railing corner. Another ten sit on the power lines above me. In all, I'm surrounded by more than fifty parrots.
The birds on the lines start up an insistent, staccato squawking that grows louder and more anxious as those below gradually join in. A group of tourists, their faces lit with fascination, stop to stare. The squawking is getting so loud that one of the tourists has to shout his question.
"Don't you ever lose any?"
"They're not mine," I shout back, laughing. "They're wild."
"Wild? . . . Are you serious? Wild parrots in San Francisco?"
Before I can answer, the screaming hits a tremendous peak, and the entire flock bolts. In the scramble to leave, a few of the birds nearly collide with the startled, ducking tourists. The parrots continue to scream as they fly on stiff, frantic wings through a gap in a row of trees and disappear from view.
Yes. Wild parrots in San Francisco.
A Rolling Stone
The first time I saw them was on Russian Hill at a housecleaning job. I was on my knees, dusting an end table, when I noticed four brightly colored birds clinging to a small feeder that hung just outside the living room window. At first glance, I didn't know what I was looking at. Then it dawned on me: They were parrots. The birds must have sensed my excitement, for they immediately fled. I jumped to my feet and ran to the window, but the only trace of them that remained was the swinging feeder.
A few weeks later, I was astonished to see the same four birds again, this time in a tree that grew just outside the place where I was staying on Telegraph Hill. They were crawling around the tree's bushy limbs and eating its tiny cones. Completely bewildered, I walked as close to them as they would allow. I'd never known much about birds, so the parrots raised questions that I had no idea how to answer: How had they gotten to San Francisco? Were they someone's pets? What species were they? How could they stand the cold? The last question puzzled me most. San Francisco's weather is generally moderate year-round, but I assumed that anything less than a hothouse environment would kill a tropical bird. Maybe they weren't parrots. I'd always thought of parrots as large birds, but these were only about a foot long, nearly half of which was their tail. They did have the bright colors of a parrot, though-green, with a red head, and red patches on the shoulders of their wings-and like parrots, they had hooked beaks, which were comically large. Their eyes were so expressive that even from a distance the birds struck me as personable and intelligent. There was something goofy about their eyes. It was as if they concealed the punch line to some joke.
All of a sudden, I saw their good humor vanish. They stopped eating and began scanning the area with eyes that now bulged in alarm. They pulled their feathers in tight against their bodies and their breathing became labored. One of the four uttered a few low squawks, and they all took off in a noisy and sloppy panic. I looked around the garden, but I didn't see anything that I thought should have frightened them.
Over the next few weeks, the four parrots continued to pass through my neighborhood. Because they squawked constantly in flight, I always knew when they were coming. The moment I heard them, I dropped whatever I was doing and ran outside to watch. They were different from other birds-so different that it was difficult to think of them as birds at all. They seemed more like monkeys. Sometimes they'd perch on the power lines and, for no apparent reason, scream like lunatics. They also liked to hang upside down. Occasionally I'd see two of them dangling side by side and shrieking hysterically while trying to bite each other in the face.
I learned later that the parrots were visiting my neighborhood because of the many trees that grew there. I didn't know trees any better than I did birds, so I asked Helen Arpin, the woman who lived on the floor above me, the name of the tree from which I'd seen them eating. She said it was a juniper. There was another tree that the parrots liked even more, an Asian fruit tree called the loquat. I already knew the loquat. When the parrots weren't eating its fruit, they often napped in it. Loquat leaves are broad and long, nearly as long as the parrots. The birds' feathers and the tree's leaves were similar enough in color that when the birds perched on the inner branches, they were almost perfectly camouflaged. Even when I knew for certain they were in there, they could be difficult to spot. Eventually, they'd pop their bright red heads out of the treetop, and I'd have them in sight again.
I'd popped my head out of the top of a loquat tree once, and it had gotten me thrown out onto the street.
Sixteen years earlier, in the spring of 1974, my home was a broken-down VW van parked in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. I was twenty-two years old and leading the life of a dharma bum, a term coined by the poet Gary Snyder that means "a homeless seeker of truth." I'd met Alan, the van's owner, the previous spring when I was living in Berkeley. Alan was a hippie jeweler and street vendor, and I was a street musician. He liked my music, and we became acquainted. But my musical career had come to an abrupt end, which is why I was living in his van.
When I was a young boy, I'd had the usual ambitions-private eye, baseball player, astronaut-but when I turned fourteen I began to recognize that I was different somehow and that I was never going to have a "normal" life. So I switched to what I thought a more appropriate occupation; I decided to become a Great Novelist. I liked writing, but I kept making the same unsettling discovery: Every writer whose work I admired had ended up alcoholic, poverty-stricken, crazy, or suicidal. Since not even one of them had been a healthy and sane human being, I made what I thought was a better career choice: rock-and-roll musician.
Rock and roll was at its creative peak and looked extremely attractive to me. I thought I could transfer my love for writing from books to songs, but it didn't work out that way. Although my love for music was genuine, inside I simply didn't feel like a real musician. My doubts about my sincerity brought on an inner conflict that began to nag at me. I refused to deal honestly with the problem, however, and my refusal paralyzed me. I couldn't find the will to pick up my guitar. Eventually I reached the point where I either had to make a real move or abandon my goal.
I was living in Seattle then, and I knew that if I wanted to hit the big time, I'd have to move to another city. I never had any doubts about which city it should be: San Francisco. I felt attracted to its particular flavor of bohemia. I pictured San Francisco as being filled with artists living in funky little houses and studying Zen. Timid about moving there directly, I decided to test the waters across the bay in Berkeley first. But even though I managed to make a living playing music, it did nothing to alleviate my doubts. My psychological stress kept growing until one day I freaked. I had no choice other than to give it up.
I'd devoted myself so exclusively to this one goal that when it collapsed, I had nothing to fall back on. I couldn't see anything else I wanted to do. It was an extremely dark period for me. I got so far down that I could barely function. One night I started having vaguely suicidal feelings, and after debating it at length, I decided I should call the Suicide Prevention Center. The man who answered the phone sounded harassed.
"Jeez, man. You picked a really bad time to call. Could you just hold on until morning and call back then?"
I paused, said "Sure," and he hung up.
Then, as though fortune were looking out for me, my sister, Beth, came to town. She'd decided to move to San Francisco and had stopped in Berkeley to look for me. I told her what had happened, and she offered to put me up until I could pull myself back together.
In those days, when one's life was at such an impasse, people often turned to Eastern religions. I'd always believed in inner exploration, but I tended to regard people who'd "gotten religion" as cop-outs. The only spiritual struggle that mattered to me was that of the artist. Someone had once asked me what my religion was, and I'd told him I was a Taoist. I knew nothing about Taoism, of course. I had a superficial idea of it as being about following your own path without having to endure a bunch of rules and ceremonies. I didn't even think of it as a religion, really, which to my mind made it a good thing. So it was an easy step for me to take a more serious look at Taoism. It had a good reputation within bohemian circles, and I considered myself first and foremost a bohemian. I started reading the Tao Te Ching, Taoism's main text. While most of it was incomprehensible to me, some of it made beautiful sense. I liked the down-to-earth aspects of its spirituality. As I read it, I got more and more drawn in. I felt challenged by it, enough so that I started reading other spiritual books: the I Ching, The Analects of Confucius, the Dhammapada, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the works of Rumi. I even read the Bible. I also started trying to meditate. At first, sitting was extremely difficult for me. I was so restless that I couldn't keep still for more than a few minutes at a time. But gradually I got better at it and learned to sit for longer and longer periods.
Five months after taking me in, Beth decided to move on. It had been a period of intense inner struggle and discipline for me. I was finally dealing seriously with my questions: Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going? Having started down that path, it felt dangerous to stop. I needed some cubbyhole where I could continue. I'd been a complete recluse while living with Beth, and the only other person I knew in San Francisco was Alan. When I told him about my situation, he offered to let me stay in his van. I jumped at the chance.
The van was parked on a concrete slab in front of the North Beach apartment building where Alan lived. Unfortunately, one of his neighbors was not at all sympathetic to lost souls struggling to sort out their lives. To Maureen, I wasn't a dharma bum; I was just a plain old bum. Whenever she went out or came home, she'd see me sitting in the back of the van doing God-knows-what, and it was driving her up the wall. But I didn't know that.
I fasted a lot that spring-sometimes for spiritual reasons, sometimes because I didn't have any money. In order to eat, I'd been slowly selling off my possessions, but I was running out of things that anybody wanted to buy. Free food made me happier than anything else in the world.
Now, just outside the van grew a loquat tree. The fruit of the loquat is a small, juicy yellow ball. I'd never eaten loquats before, and I thought they were delicious. As the fruit on the lowest limbs ripened, I picked and ate it. Once I'd eaten all the fruit within reach, I started climbing the tree. As the days passed, I climbed higher and higher, until one morning I reached the top. Maureen was washing dishes and happened to glance out her kitchen window at the very moment my head popped into view. My sudden, jack-in-the-box appearance first frightened and then infuriated her. It was the last straw. She ran next door and demanded that Alan kick me out of the van. Alan didn't want to do it, but he had no choice. That evening he gave me the bad news.
Meet the Author
MARK BITTNER is the subject of a documentary film, also titled The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, directed by Judy Irving. He still lives in San Francisco on Telegraph Hill.
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