Judy Irving's documentary about the birdman of San Francisco opens like a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, with a sunny bird's-eye view of an urban sprawl that settles in on a park filled with children, flora and lots of feathered fauna. It closes like one, too, but I'll say no more about that.
Soon we meet the 45 or so wild conures who inhabit a small patch of heaven on Telegraph Hill, although you may think they're wild in name only. Mark Bittner, who has a long frizzy Haight-Ashbury pony tail and a small bushy beard, feeds these green parrots by hand and has Christian names for his special favorites. Some are cherry-headed conures, some blue-crowned conures, some mitred conures. These distinctions create a pecking order.
The birds, Bittner tells us, are the wild offspring of captive pets that either escaped or were set free. They live just fine on their own, but like so many people, they're happy to accept a free meal. Bittner takes birds inside his home only when they're sick, and they rarely enter gladly. When they light out from Bittner's buffet to spend their afternoon in the air, they do so in squawking unison, as if flying were painful, or maybe just exhilarating.
It's easy to make fun of stuff like this. But really, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is an amiable tale, especially if you've ever had a bird as a pet. Bittner, who says he's not an eccentric, invents anthropomorphic narratives about his wards, and Irving's patient camera captures images that make his stories seem real.
Connor, for example, a cool, cranky, blue-headed loner, is ostracized by the red-headed birds. Scrapper and Scrapperella, a couple, broke up over Scrapperella's habit of plucking out her (and sometimes his) feathers. When Bittner plays his acoustic guitar (he's an unrequited musician from Seattle), one bird bobs his head to the music, looking like a mellowed-out coffee-house groupie. Hawks are the villains of the piece, but Bittner accepts this fact of life. These are, after all, "wild" birds, so nature must take its toll.
In addition to teaching us about birds, Irving offers a handsome Baedeker of San Francisco's verdant and urban best. It's a town whose charms hardly require an agent. Bittner's story, too, unfolds: his years on the street, his spiritual awakening, his rebirth among his birds. This is not a New York story, but it's not Alcatraz, either.
Of course, ornithophobes aside, not everyone finds Bittner's benign passion to be so charming. Early in the film, he's queried by a tourist who points out that if Bittner feeds and names the birds, then they're not really wild, are they? And why, says the skeptic, doesn't he care for other species of birds? As Bittner smiles contentedly and tends his birds, the visitor says, "Well, whatever, good luck," then walks away. My sentiments exactly.