Judy Irving's intimate portrait of a San Franciso loner's unlikely love affair with a feral flock of cacophonous cherry-capped conures — clownish, pigeon-sized, bright-green birds — ends with a gentle, satisfying twist. Bearded middle-aged Mark Bittner, who has thick glasses, a long ponytail and "no money, but all the time in the world," pursued a vague...read more
Judy Irving's intimate portrait of a San Franciso loner's unlikely love affair with a feral flock of cacophonous cherry-capped conures — clownish, pigeon-sized, bright-green birds — ends with a gentle, satisfying twist. Bearded middle-aged Mark Bittner, who has thick glasses, a long ponytail and "no money, but all the time in the world," pursued a vague dream of rock and roll stardom from Seattle to San Francisco in the late 1970s and never left. He also never sought steady employment, depending on odd jobs and the kindness of strangers to get by, and didn't so much look for his bliss as he waited for it to find him. And wonder of wonders, it did. In the early 1990s, the increasingly reclusive Bittner took a caretaking job in a Telegraph Hill building that came with a small apartment and a breathtaking view of a tangled garden teeming with birds. Restless and looking for inner harmony, Bittner looked to beat poet Gary Snyder for inspiration. Snyder (who in turn inspired the hero of Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums) favored getting in touch with the natural world and wrote that people in search of nature should start looking right where they are. So Bittner began feeding the tropical-looking parrots that screeched and capered outside his window; watching them, he tells Irving, was "what I was doing while I was trying to figure out … where I was going to go in my life." Instead, they became his new life. An amateur in the best sense of the world, Bittner educated himself, learning that cherry-capped conures were South American natives brought to the US for the pet trade and that the escapees and their offspring proved surprisingly hardy, adapting well to chilly San Francisco winters. He began recording his daily observations about the flock (though not until a friend have him a journal), then started photographing them with a succession of borrowed cameras. Bittner grew to recognize individuals and gave them names, became familiar with their surprisingly complicated relationships and lost them to hawks, house cats and viral infections. And bit by bit, the birds drew Bittner back into engagement with the larger world, eventually inspiring him to write a book — The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story … with Wings. Though Bittner's slacker charm may not be to all tastes, the parrots are natural-born scene-stealers with more than enough charm to seduce the most dubious viewer.
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