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News / Life / Clark County Life

Birder of Telegraph Hill: Kiggins screens parrot documentary starring Vancouver native

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 25, 2024, 6:02am
2 Photos
Vancouver native Mark Bittner and his many parrot friends one day in the early 2000s on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
Vancouver native Mark Bittner and his many parrot friends one day in the early 2000s on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. (Judy Irving) Photo Gallery

It was big Bay Area news last summer when sea lions, the tourism darlings of San Francisco’s Pier 39 Marina, took a dive in a contest to name that city’s “unofficial-official” animal.

The winner, as voted by readers of the San Francisco Chronicle and subsequently rendered “officially official” by the city’s board of supervisors?

Wild parrots.

San Francisco’s curious passion for a particular flock of roaming parrots — colorful, friendly and totally non-native to the area — was catalyzed by a quietly charming documentary film starring Mark Bittner, a man who grew up in west Vancouver.

The 20th anniversary re-release of “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” screens Friday through Tuesday at the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver, with an additional weekend possible, according to programmer Richard Beer.

IF YOU GO

What: Twentieth anniversary screenings of “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” directed by Judy Irving, featuring Mark Bittner.

When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, with additional showings through Tuesday.

Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

Tickets: $10.

Information:www.kigginstheatre.com online.

In a telephone interview with The Columbian, Bittner said he’ll supply a special video message for his hometown audience.

“It’s very exciting, because I used to go to the Kiggins all the time when I was a kid,” he said.

Bittner grew up in the Fruit Valley, Lake Shore and Lincoln neighborhoods and graduated from Columbia River High School, he said. In those days, Vancouver seemed like a dull little suburb to Bittner, who was eager to get away. He moved to Seattle and then to San Francisco, where his dreams of singer-songwriter success gave way to life on the street.

Eventually, Bittner found himself squatting (with the permission and protection of the owners and neighbors) in a cottage where he started casually feeding local birds.

“I was never a birder of any kind, but it attracted the parrots I’d been looking at for years, and I was fascinated,” he said. “After six months I had them eating out of my hand.”

For six years, Bittner’s primary pastime was maintaining a wild flock of cherry-headed conures — about 60 parrots in all — whose ancestors must have come from Peru or Ecuador. Theories abound in the film as to how South American birds wound up wild in San Francisco. Bittner figures that they were imported as pets, but what happened after that is anyone’s guess.

“They were either deliberately released or they escaped, and enough of the same species got together to keep the flock going,” he said.

Parrot personalities

Bittner hoped somebody would document his relationship with the parrots, which he thought might make a delightful 10-minute film for children, he said. But filmmaker Judy Irving wound up doing a deep dive, recording Bittner’s bird escapades for about a year and continuing to labor over her final product for four more.

Released in 2003, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” earned rave reviews in San Francisco and beyond. Bittner’s assessment of the story is right: the G-rated film is entirely appropriate for children as well as their parents. It might just be the quietest, gentlest, sweetest film ever to earn the edgy label “cult classic.”

The most remarkable thing about “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” is the intimacy Bittner builds with his parrot friends. The film shares his insights about their friendships and love affairs, rivalries and deaths — and even one painful breakup.

“I got to know their personalities,” he said. “They’re not just little chemical robots. You see jealousy, playfulness, anger. You can see all kinds of things just by looking in their eyes.

“For me the big thing was understanding the oneness of everything that lives,” Bittner said.

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The wild parrot flock of Telegraph Hill is doing fine today, he said, even though he doesn’t tend them anymore. In fact, the original group of around 60 has grown to 300.

“I never meant to be the parrot man,” he said. “I wanted to move on.”

Vancouver inspirations

While Bittner’s hometown is not mentioned in the film, he explained that Vancouver connections play an unlikely, inspirational role in his parrot story.

Bittner said his awareness of urban wildlife was powerfully inspired by “Night Herons,” a classic poem by renowned California poet Gary Snyder. Snyder was reportedly spurred to write the poem by his friend and architect, Zach Stewart, who also grew up in west Vancouver and was a high school classmate of Bittner’s father (now deceased).

Zach Stewart’s father, Don Stewart, raised his family in the same Lincoln neighborhood where Bittner was a youth — and where Stewart’s name was given to Stewart Glen, the westernmost leg of the Burnt Bridge Creek Greenway Trail.

Without Vancouver’s Burnt Bridge Creek and its influence on Don and Zach Stewart, Bittner said, Snyder may never have written “Night Herons.” And without that poem, Bittner may never have bothered to befriend the birds.

Bittner said his youthful impatience with Vancouver has evolved into great fondness.

“It was a small town I wanted to escape, but in retrospect I like it a lot,” he said. “I have a few cousins and friends still there. I love the landscape of the Pacific Northwest. My memories of the place are very positive.”

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