Directed by Judy Irving. 2003.

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"…and I will leave. But the birds will stay, singing: and my garden will stay, with its green tree, with its water well" - Juan Ramon Jimenez 

North Beach poet/writer/street musician Mark Bittner lived rent-free for three years in a small cottage on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill while trying to discover his life's direction, called Right Living in the Buddhist tradition. Instead of going to find it, however, he waited for it to come to him but he was growing impatient. "I've always had a feeling like I was on a path", he states, "that I was following the course of a river, and you don't jump the banks because you get impatient. So that's mostly what I was doing, but I was getting very impatient." His impatience ended when three green conures with red crowns showed up on his stairwell in North Beach. The next day twenty-six came, having either escaped from their owners or been intentionally released.  

Now they were in the city looking for gardens and parks, and people to feed them and they found their loving caretaker in Mark Bittner, a meeting seemingly meant to happen. All of this is documented in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, directed by Judy Irving who won a national Emmy and the Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1983. She filmed the pony-tailed Bittner for almost a year, following him from his days trying to scrape up enough money for an espresso at Café Trieste in North Beach to the more comfortable present. The film is not just for or about the birds but about a gentle soul, his bond with nature, and a loving witness to the events. Since its release, it has grossed more than $3 million at the box office and has played in more than 440 venues.  

After reading Beatnik poets Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, Bittner took to heart Snyder's admonition to begin expressing your love of nature right where you are. He fell in love with the birds, feeding them, caring for them, and nurturing them when they were sick. Eventually he wrote a book about them that made the New York Times bestseller list in 2004. Bittner started feeding the parrots, photographing and cataloging them, while Irving filmed in 16mm enhanced to 35mm. As Irving narrates, we see the birds eating out of his hand, perching on his arm, and even pecking his ear as he creates a rhythm in their lives and becomes part of their daily routine. Bittner claims that each bird has a distinct personality and he gives them names such as Connor, a blue-crowned conure, Olive, a mitred conure and her friend Gibson, Pushkin who stole Olive from her friend Gibson and was the father of Mingus, Sophie, and Picasso.  

It is one of the sadder stories when Mark's favorite bird, the only blue-crowned conure who was never completely accepted by the flock, is snatched away by a hawk and we mourn when any of the birds dies. Bittner describes how the birds make it clear to him that we are all one and that our separateness is an illusion, like a waterfall that separates into many drops before coming together at the bottom. After seeing this film, one calls to mind the words of the poet e.e. cummings, "i thank You God for most this amazing day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes." The beautiful birds opened up a new world for Bittner and Irving and may do so for you as well. They have now found the Right Living together and we are all the richer for it.  


Howard Schumann
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