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Docurama presents
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)

"I didn't think of myself as an eccentric. There were all these parrots, and I wanted to find out who they were."
- Mark Bittner

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: December 27, 2005

Stars: Mark Bittner
Other Stars: Connor, Sophie, Picasso, Tupelo, Mingus, Judy Irving
Director: Judy Irving

MPAA Rating: G for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:23m:02s
Release Date: December 26, 2005
UPC: 767685969335
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B-C+ B

DVD Review

Judy Irving's documentary about a flock of roughly 45 wild cherry-headed conure parrots living in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco is also about Mark Bittner, a gentle, long-haired, hippie-era transplant who once dreamt of musical fame and admittedly hasn't held a real job in decades.

But fate has a way of propelling people in odd directions, and in Bittner's case it was into a deep fascination with this group of colorful birds that somehow transformed him from being an aimless drifter into a self-taught ornithologist of sorts, cataloging the lives of these very unique parrots. He spends an inordinate amount of time studying them, hand-feeding them, and in return the birds have come to accept him seemingly unconditionally.

Unless you're an animal lover, it is probably a challenge to wrap your head around the notion that within a group of parrots there could be such a diverse collection of identifiable personalities, but between Bittner's home movies and the footage shot by Irving, that fact becomes apparent very quickly. Bittner himself is a quirky sort too, but Irving keeps him in the periphery just enough and lets the story of the birds come forward in his words.

Of course he's named most of the flock, and he's filled in—with logical supposition—their past, and he introduces us to the loner, the couples, and even the one afraid to go outside. And for all of their differences, the group exists as one, relying in some way or another on the vibe of the collective whole. When we see blue-headed Connor (he's the outsider among the cherry-heads, trying to fit in) seeking a mate who ultimately rejects him because he's different, it is genuinely touching, and yet he sticks with the flock, defending sick birds against rogue troublemakers.

It isn't all fun and games on Telegraph Hill, however, as Irving documents the ever present danger of hawks and factions within the city that want these non-native birds destroyed. Bittner, even as he's facing eviction, does continual battle for the birds, and when the time comes for him to have to give up agoraphobic Mingus to a better home it is a real heartbreaker. But that doesn't compare to Bittner's painful recollection about a dying parrot he cared for, and his thoughts on her final hours reinforces the pivotal role he has played in the lives of these birds.

Irving includes a funny bit about the urban legends surrounding how these South American natives found their way to San Francisco. Lots of theories, but nobody really knows how they ended up as such an identifiable fixture. Likewise with Bittner in a way, though he admits the lure of the music scene brought him down from Seattle, but it seems clear he was destined for a deeper purpose. His unusual existence as the "St. Francis of Telegraph Hill" is strangely inspiring as it is frustrating, but I imagine he'd be the first to say the story is really all about the birds, and not him.

The ugliness of so-called real life keeps this from being a completely happy story at all times, but it is the birds that form the unique emotional center of Irving's film.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This doc is presented in its original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratio. Some of the sequences—such as the opening shots when we are first introduced to the birds—have pleasing, deep colors and rather decent detail levels, while other scenes shot under less than ideal circumstances have a softer, less defined "documentary" look to them. It's not a jarring juxtaposition, but it is somewhat noticeable if you fixate on it. The print itself has some minor specking and debris issues as well.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Audio choices are available in 2.0 stereo or 5.1 Dolby Digital surround. My copy of the film had a problem with the 5.1 track, with all of the audio coming out of the left front and rear only, so I was forced to opt for the stereo mix. It was a tad disappointing at the outset, because what I had heard from the 5.1 track were the hints of a very rich sounding musical bed, one that was fuller than most docs. The good news is the 2.0 stereo blend was perfectly suitable for the task, offering up the soundtrack with a fair amount of breadth and depth, balanced by clear narration. Your mileage, however, may vary.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring Touch The Sound, Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Brother's Keeper, Go Tigers!, Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Lost in La Mancha, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, The Weather Underground
7 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Here's a film for which I would have welcomed a commentary track, but alas. There is, however, the particularly welcome Flock Update (06m:58s), where Bittner returns to fill us in on the status of the birds, and considering some of the sadness that occurs at the end of the feature, it was satisfying to get some more uplifting news.

A set of seven deleted scenes runs nearly 30 minutes, the best of which is just over 14 minutes in length, and concerns the supposed origins of the flock. A series of short films is also included, featuring Homage to Connor (11m:55s), Mingus at the Oasis (08m:08s), Mark's Home Movies (28m:15s) and California Quail (03m:08s). The piece on Connor (the blue-headed conure) and the followup on the transplanted Mingus serve the same purpose as the Flock Update, offering some additional info that softens the blow of some of the doc's harsher realities.

A music video (04m:13s) for an original song entitled Dogen, Connor, and Tupelo is performed by Roberta Fabiano, with cuts of her singing in a studio mixed in with footage from the film. A full compliment of Docurama trailers, a bio on Judy Irving, info on Mark Bittner's book and how to order a soundtrack round out the supplements.

The disc is cut into 12 chapters.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

There was absolutely no way you could have convinced me beforehand that a doc about birds in San Francisco could—in any way, shape or form—have been so ridiculously captivating and heartbreaking. A leftover hippie musician with no visible means of support becomes the "St. Francis of Telegraph Hill," cataloging and documenting the lives and loves of the assorted and distinct personalities that exist within a small flock of wild parrots.

And I was hanging on every word.

Another winner from Docurama. Highly recommended.


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