Mark Bittner talks about the lifestyle and habits of the flock, problems, predators and how the birds changed his life in ways he wouldn't have expected.
Read Mark's responses to viewer questions >>
How long has the flock been flying free in San Francisco, and how did it get started?
All the birds that started the flock were originally wild-caught cherry-headed conures (a.k.a. red-masked parakeets) shipped up from South America (Ecuador and Peru) to be sold as pets. My ideas on how they actually got loose change all the time. My current theory is that it was a combination of individual escapees and frustrated pet owners. The story of some birds getting loose outside a pet shop is possible, but then a lot of the stories I’ve heard are plausible. I have some leg band numbers, but that has proven to be a dead end. It only takes you to the quarantine station, not to who may have owned the bird after that. The first pair came together around 1987 and started breeding in 1989, so I always think of the flock as starting that year. Other parrots of the same species began to join up with the original group a few years later.
You say you’re not a parrot expert, but do you think you have anything to share with those who study parrots in South America?
Well, I am an expert on this flock. I know its history and the individual birds and their relationships. Having had this experience, I know a lot more details about parrots than some people. I do think I could give some insight to field researchers, but I believe they’re a little bit concerned about me. It seems they have very strict rules about how to engage with a species, while I don’t follow anything like that. There’s an attitude that “if you’re studying birds then you should do it in a scientific way,” as if there are no other approaches. I think that’s a bit ridiculous, because you can interact with the world any way you please. I didn’t get into this to be scientific, but inadvertently I have learned a lot of facts. I have no interest in seeing things in an untruthful way. I always try to be accurate.
Have you seen a pecking order?
No. There is none. Even if a bird is aggressive, he doesn’t obtain a leadership position. There is no dominant bird that the other birds follow. One aggressive bird was actually kicked out of the flock for a while. The flock would come to eat, and he had to stay up in the trees.
You were feeding strictly sunflower seeds to the birds. What else is in the parrots’ diet?
They eat a lot of juniper berries, which, oddly, I’ve seen listed as poisonous to parrots. They eat fruit from backyard trees growing in the area—strawberry guavas, pears, apples, loquats, wild blackberries, etc. They eat pine nuts and a lot of blossoms. Their range, by the way, is about four miles along the north waterfront. They are more accurately described as the North Waterfront Parrots. But at mid-summer they expand that range by about three miles down the center of the city. I believe it’s for food they find there at that time—especially Hawthorne berries.
Did you see a breeding cycle?
Yes, and it’s very consistent. They lay right around the first day of summer. I know because the females stop showing up for the feedings.
Can you share some of the problems you've faced over the years regarding the birds?
The main problem I had in the past was with young birds contracting some
disease. We were never sure what it was; at the time we thought it was
probably pigeon paramyxovirus. Now, because several necropsies have been
performed on birds that died of this disease, we know it's actually worms
that come from raccoon feces. It's a common neurological disease that zoos
know all about. Generally, though, the flock is very healthy.
And there were other tragedies involving predators. Will you share a story about this?
Sure. Parents often stash their babies in a tree near my house, go out to forage, and then come back to feed their young. At the same time that the babies fledge, we also get an active migration of hawks through the city. One day I heard a parrot screaming, so I ran out and found a hawk on a telephone pole with a baby in its talons. The hawk had probably dived into the tree and caught one of the babies. The baby was still alive, and the hawk was ripping it apart. It was extremely unnerving to witness.
You wrote a book called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story ...with Wings. What will readers get that they didn't see in the film?
I’ve had a very positive reaction to the book, and not just from bird people. The story has gotten around by word of mouth. People who don’t keep birds seem to enjoy it equally well. Naturally, parrot people will identify with it. They recognize and relate to the stories first-hand. People around San Francisco are picking it up because they’ve seen the flock. But I think other people find it to be something unusual and different. Sometimes that’s what you want from a book. It’s a story first and foremost. (Read an excerpt here.)
Are you amazed at the turn of events and the ride you're on?
Not exactly. It's been gradual, so I've had plenty of time to grow accustomed to each step along the way. But it's illuminating to find that a person can get into something without thought of what it might bring—just do it for the love of it—and then have that thing be the answer to so many of your dreams. That amazes me. And I think that's something that everybody wishes for. So I feel lucky. It’s given me the confidence to start another book. It won’t have anything to do with parrots, but I really feel like I have a path now.
Read an excerpt from Mark's book about his experiences with the flock >>