Be Your Own Birder

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

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  • Author: Mark Bittner
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press
  • Publication Date: 2004
  • Pages: 299

Be Your Own Birder’s Thoughts

Birders visiting San Francisco may be surprised to see large numbers of parrots – and not in pet shops or cages. The city is home to a large feral flock of red-masked parakeets (Psittacara erythrogenys), more popularly known as cherry-headed conures. The most famous population is found around Coit Tower and the gardens on Telegraph Hill, and is the subject of Mark Bittner’s The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. The parrots first came to Bittner’s attention when he was at a spiritual crossroads in his own life, and while he admits “it was never [his] intention to make a big thing out of watching the parrots” as he got to know the birds, he realized “if [he] was patient enough, there might be no limit to how close [he] could get to the parrots.”

Ultimately, Bittner is as close to the feral parrots as any backyard birder is to their favorite avian guests. His keen observations stretch over several years and provide a comprehensive look at the flock, including how it grows and evolves, power struggles between different birds, and the unique personalities of each member. Bird stress, playful behavior, and avian emotions are all explored in great detail through the lives of individual parrots.

Though Bittner’s observations are insightful, his personification of the birds can be extreme, even to the point of attributing speech and motivations to individual birds. While he frequently claims to be studying the flock, he shares very little quantitative data and only vaguely refers to reference material or, on several occasions, consulting local experts for advice or information.

While birders can enjoy the insights Bittner shares, some of his experiences are likely to be off-putting. Several times he takes one or more of the parrots into his home, seeking to help sick or injured birds but doing so without any rehabilitation training or licensing. Granted, the flock is feral and non-native, which puts it in a gray area of captivity, but when some of the birds react negatively to his efforts and he is obviously causing greater distress, he does not relent and does what he thinks is best. Similarly, he takes steps to release another former pet parrot into the flock, readily admitting that such actions are illegal, but he would still do so for his own sentimentality in order to get one of the wild birds a mate.

Though Bittner’s approach is unorthodox, there is no doubting his genuine affection for the parrots. As the flock grows, he maintains strong connections to several older birds he has come to recognize, but his relationships with others are superficial at best and his writing can be choppy as he attempts to keep up with too many birds at once. Fortunately, the “Cast of Characters” (pages 279-288) helps distinguish individual birds, including those that may have been renamed as they become more unique in his eyes.

Feral birds are a part of city life, and while not every urban area is home to a thriving parrot population, Bittner states it well when he says “You can find nature anywhere, even in a big city like San Francisco.” He ultimately sees that while many more dedicated birders may frown upon feral populations “as if they could never be authentic wild birds” he also recognizes the pressures that non-native, introduced species can put on wild birds. Still, “to punish nature is absurd – especially given that humans created the problem.”

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill helps every reader realize that, while urban parrots may not be native, they can still be enjoyable birds to get to know as intimately as any backyard species.

Worth Reading? Sure – 7/10!

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