James is from California and he told me about wild parrots living on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. After hearing his story I had to go see them for myself. Grabbing our cameras James and I set off to hopefully see and catch some pictures of them ourselves. As we climbed Telegraph Hill my excitement rose as I watched for any signs of the green birds. Not seeing any I panicked, wondering if they were still living in the area.
How the birds, natives of South America, came to take up residence in San Francisco is a matter of speculation, even legend. Bittner, who devoted years to chronicling and caring for them, first noticed the parrots in 1989, when the flock numbered just four….a mated pair and their offspring. The adults wore quarantine bands, suggesting they had been released by, or escaped from, importers.
By 1994, Bittner and his neighbors on Telegraph Hill counted 26 parrots. By 1999, 50.
Now the wild parrots that call San Francisco home have become a given of city life, squawking their way to their favorite spots, delighting tourists. The famous flock is now about 300 strong, more than triple its size 10 years ago.
The parrots became famous when Mark Bittner, an unemployed musician down on his luck, was house cleaning for a woman who let him live rent-free in a cabin on Telegraph Hill. There he discovered and fell in love with the feral parrots. He began spending all of his free time with them, feeding and interacting with the parrots and found them to be quite endearing.
Mark Bittner With His Parrots
This relationship caused Bittner to write a book on his unique experience with his beloved parrots called “The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story With Wings” in 2004. He is now the local wild parrot expert and a tourist attraction himself.
In May 2005 a documentary by Judy Irving that chronicles Mark Bittner and his parrots named “The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill” aired on the PBS series Independent Lens. The video below is a preview of that series when there was still only about 45 birds. After the series and book the parrots became even more popular with tourists and San Franciscans.
In 2007 San Francisco banned feeding the parrots which has made tourists and bird loving residents very unhappy. The parrots were falling ill to a bone disease caused by eating too many seeds and not enough of the blossoms and other food they would normally eat. They were also losing their foraging instincts and street smarts, making them easy targets for predators.
They fall prey not only to hawks but also to a tiny worm thought to come from raccoons, Erlichman said. The worm causes a neurological disease marked by dizziness and the inability to fly.
A local bird rescue group, which was founded to rescue abandoned pet cockatiels, is inundated with wild parrots who need care, including fledglings that crash and break a wing or leg, birds stricken by illness and those injured by predators or accident.
"As a flock, it's healthy, it's growing," said Jennifer Erlichman, the rescue's wild conure coordinator. "There has always been a percentage that falls ill or gets injured. The percentage hasn't changed. There are just more birds."
When we were almost to the top of Telegraph Hill we saw a parrot. And then another. Soon there they were, flying about and hanging in the trees. Some even thought we had seed which helped us get some pictures of their funny antics.
They are so colorful and we were lucky to get pictures while they were picking mates although I couldn’t tell the difference between the males and females. They are playful, colorful birds who dart around acrobatically and chirp at high decibels.
Now the flock is not only growing but they are migrating to the San Francisco suburbs. “The birds probably migrated there in search of food;” said Mark Bittner, the man who helped make the birds a tourist draw in San Francisco.
A flock of about 100 can be found around the northern edge of San Francisco. The first of their kind has been rumored to have been freed by a lady who owned a pet store and one day she opened up all the cages and let the animals go. They adapted to the city's chill and fog and the presence of humans when Bittner discovered them.
The birds in Brisbane (some of which circulate back to San Francisco) have been spotted eating juniper and hawthorn berries. They were first seen there about three years ago and were welcomed by the residents.
We had such a good day walking up Telegraph Hill photographing these beautiful birds although we did not run into Mark Bittner himself. After all, it was 2011 when these pictures were taken although Mark’s still caring for his beloved parrots today.
In 2005 it looked like the parrots where not in for a happy ending. As usual “man” had stepped in and the parrots were losing their main home. That would include three Monterey cypresses where the parrots perch, watch for preying hawks, stash their offspring while they hunt for food and mate. One tree was cut down and the parrots were seen hopping on wires and acting confused. Flocks would fly towards the area where the tree was, circle and fly away over and over again acting upset. “I can’t predict what this will do to the parrots in the long term,” Bittner told the press.
When the chainsaws started up to cut down the other two trees it was Mark Bittner who saved the day again. Living next door he ran out of his cottage, stood at the base of the trees in protest and persuaded the workers to turn off their saws. They did. The case went to court and the parrot supporters and Bittner waited to see what would become of them.
In 2007 the remaining trees were saved by the City. It was remarkable! San Francisco took over the responsibility and liability for the two aging Monterey cypress trees on private property along Greenwich Street where the world famous cherry-headed conures spent a lot of their time; much to the enjoyment of residents and visitors from afar.
Bittner’s quote said it all; "I’m quite astonished that this is happening. And I’m really grateful," Bittner said; "I just don’t want their life to be made any more difficult," he added.
So if you’re ever in San Francisco, you must visit The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill and take along your camera.