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For Colorful Characters, Flock to 'Telegraph Hill'

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page WE37

PICASSO KEEPS getting into fights. In fact, he's blind in one eye from one of them. But his girlfriend, Sophie, is always there for him. Mingus, an antisocial moper by nature, loves to bob his head to blues riffs. Pushkin is a single dad. No woman to call his own. Just a nest full of kids. And then there's Connor. Took off for 10 days when his gal, Katharine, died. He's been despondent ever since. They're all regulars at Telegraph Hill, where they come for their usual poison: sunflower seeds.

They're parrots, you see. And in "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," these conures, cherry-headed, blue-crowned and mitred, are the fluttery friends of the ponytailed Mark Bittner, a San Francisco musician-turned-Francis of Assisi, who spends most of his time with them. If man gave name to all the animals, then Bittner's continuing ancient tradition with whimsical flair. He's the one behind all those colorful monikers. He's also the only one on this particular San Francisco hill who feeds, takes care of and (as we rapidly learn) loves them.

"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" centers on Mark Bittner, a San Francisco musician who has become a caretaker and friend to conures. (Aniela Cossali -- Pelican Media)

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Imported originally from points south (Ecuador and Peru), Bittner's birds (although he claims no ownership) are mostly escapees (or their immediate descendants) from opened bird cages or transportation compartments at airports around the United States. There are communities of birds like this all over the country. But Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Judy Irving has chosen to focus on Bittner, who (at least during filming) lives in a building adjacent to the hill.

This is a charmfest of a movie, for bird lovers and non-bird lovers alike. It's not just about Bittner's affection and care for the birds, touching enough as that is. It's about the spiritual journey he has taken from a careerist path (if street musician and would-be rock star could be conceived as one) to becoming simply a friend of conures. He's a deep thinker, inspired by the likes of beat poet Gary Snyder and Zen master Suzuki-roshi, who sees no frivolity in his relationship with the conures. What's remarkable is that Bittner has managed to spend most of his adult life living relatively rent-free, while serving his wild parrots.

There is a structure to this seemingly free-form story. Bittner is asked to leave his cottage because of redevelopment, which means essentially saying farewell to his birds. Suddenly, through Bittner's tears, the relationship between human and animal feels like a rich and poignant one, especially when he recounts a moving experience with the first bird he befriended, Tupelo. There is genuine pathos here as Bittner prepares himself for bittersweet transition. But in this delightful film, there are other blessings in store. And it's testament to Bittner's warmhearted resilience and affection for his fellow creatures that he gets to enjoy a few of his own.

THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL (G, 83 minutes) -- Contains nothing objectionable. At Landmark's E Street Cinema and the Avalon Theatre.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company