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THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Mark Bittner
Director: Judy Irving
Audio: English Dolby 5.1 or stereo 2.0
Subtitles: English closed captions
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: New Video
Features: Flock update, short films, home movie, music video, deleted scenes, trailers, booklet, promotional pages
Length: 83 minutes
Release Date: December 27, 2005

"Once he had the opportunity to be wild, he wanted to stay free."

Documentary ***

When one thinks of parrots and their wild habitats, usually the image of a dense South American rainforest is conjured to mind.  A teeming urban metropolis hardly qualifies.  Yet, strangely enough, stable populations of wild parrots indeed exist and thrive within such startling and unlikeliest of locations.

Judy Irving's documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003) follows one such Californian flock of cherry-headed conures.  These parrots are northern Peruvian birds and certainly not indigenous to the United States.  Nonetheless, there they are, bunches of cherry-headed conures flapping around the hills of San Francisco.

One man who has taken these colorful and intelligent birds to heart over the years is Mark Bittner.  Once an aspiring young musician but now simply a friendly if harmlessly eccentric San Franciscan, Bittner spends his ample free time tending to these wild birds.  He feeds them and observes their behavior continuously.  In fact, Bittner has such rare insight into the behavioral patterns of these parrots that his common knowledge of the conures would rival that of a trained ornithologist.

Bittner hypothesizes that the original parrots had either been released or had escaped from their cages, with subsequent successive generations of parrots accounting for the increasing size of the parrot population around the bay area.  Other San Francisco residents, including inquisitive tourists or peeping neighbors, also offer their own urban legends over how the birds might have arrived into the area.

No matter the truth, the reality is that the conures are there to stay, and Bittner is so familiar with them that he can identify individually named birds.  There is music-loving Mingus, a wild bird who nevertheless prefers life in Bittner's home whenever he can get in.  There are Picasso and his mate Sophie, both injured birds dependent upon one another for support and companionship.  There is Olive, a female mitred conure (a large southern Peruvian bird) who is perhaps the grand matriarch of the flock.  On the flip side, there is cranky curmudgeon Connor, the sole blue-crowned conure of the flock.  In Bittner's opinion, the mingling of these species has created a new breed of conures exclusive to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Throughout the documentary, Bittner reveals other tidbits of information about these delightful birds.  For instance, the cherry-headed conures (also known as red-masked parakeets) are totally green at birth and only later develop the distinctive reddish-tint to their head feathers.  Parent conures are extremely devoted to the care of their young.  And in light of the ever-vigilant red-tail hawks around the area, Bittner even describes the cunning defense maneuvers employed by the cherry-headed conures to avoid or confuse their predators.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill isn't entirely cheerful, however.  These parrots, being wild, are not immune to the inherent dangers of freedom.  Bittner occasionally takes in injured birds and cares for them until they are well enough to return to the wild.  The sadder fate of some of Bittner's more beloved birds is recounted by the somewhat tearful bird lover in the concluding portions of the film.  While poignant, these stories illustrate the preciousness of life, large or small, and the transcendence of affection and devotion beyond mere size or physical appearance.  Bittner truly loved his birds, and in their own way, wild though they may be, they loved him in return.

Video ***

The picture quality is soft and mildly grainy with a few instances of debris here and there but nothing too intrusive.  Images are otherwise bright and colorful, as would befit a film about wild exotic birds.  For a documentary, the video presentation on this DVD is just fine.

Audio ***

The soundtrack is available in a 5.1 or stereo 2.0 mix.  Audio is a combination of commentary by Bittner and direct sound with the usual background traffic noise or buzz of everyday life.  Dialogue is clear with optional English closed captions.

Features ***

The DVD opens with a trailer for Touch the Sound, an acclaimed documentary about deaf percussionists.  Found elsewhere on the disc is a grainy but charming trailer for The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill itself.

The first group of bonus features on this disc is quite delightful, and each feature truly enhances the experience of watching The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.  There are no useless fillers here.  Many of these featurettes easily could have been incorporated into the documentary itself.

First is A Flock Update (7 min.).  This featurette describes how the conure flock has changed and expanded in the intervening years since The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill was first filmed.  Bittner points out new members and familiar birds who still remember his kindness during his years at Telegraph Hill.

There are also seven deleted scenes (25 min.), ranging in length from half a minute to fourteen minutes.  Some of the topics include conure babies and juveniles and more urban legends.  The best deleted scene concerns perhaps the real origins of the San Francisco flock, as experienced by a Laurel Wroten four years before Mark Bittner had even begun tending to the birds (starting around 1993).  Wroten too was enamored with the birds and fed them herself until moving; she was familiar with some of the conures (such as the blue-crowned Connor) that Bittner himself would later befriend.

A quartet of short films also awaits.  The poignant Homage to Connor (12 min.) highlights the friendship between Bittner and this exceptional conure.  Connor is gone but not forgotten.  Mingus at the Oasis (8 min.) provides an update on the whereabouts of Mingus, now happy at the Oasis Sanctuary for birds.  Bittner visits his former avian friend and even plays a guitar jingle to which Mingus dances.  This is a rather sweet short film!  California Quail (3 min.) is a quick look at a pair of California quails and their chicks on a restoration site.  This short film was created by the Golden Gate Audubon Society in an effort to promote habitat preservation for these native birds.

The biggest selection here is Mark's Home Movies (28 min.), a grouping of various home movies shot by Bittner.  The clips go back to the early 1990's when Bittner first began to notice the birds.  Many birds mentioned in Bittner's eventual book about these conures are shown here, and Bittner references his text on numerous occasions to identify his relationships with the individual birds (including several not seen in the documentary).  These home movies collectively might be considered a prequel to The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, as the footage was shot long before the participation of director Judy Irving.

Among the shorter extra features, there is a music video (4 min.) by singer Roberta Fabiano dedicated to the parrots Dogen, Connor, and Tupelo.

The second section of extras is devoted entirely to biographies or promotional pages.  The section opens with a biography about Judy Irving, the documentary's award-winning filmmaker.  There are also promotional pages for Mark Bittner's book and memoirs about the film, the soundtrack, and the production companies Pelican Media and Docurama.

The most extensive feature in this section is the huge Docurama catalog library. There are over one hundred entries, including trailers for Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Brother's Keeper, Go Tigers, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Lost in La Mancha, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hoot Hills, and The Weather Underground.  It is a pity that so many of these documentaries choose such violent, incendiary, or angry subject matters.  What's wrong with more parrots?  If the visual sensory overload is too much, Docurama also includes a catalog booklet with this DVD for viewers who prefer to read the good, old-fashioned way - on paper.

Summary:

Bird lovers everywhere, this is the documentary for you!  The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is a sweet and tender love story about one man's devotion to some of the San Francisco Bay Area's more surprising avian residents.

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