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Bird Brains

23 Nov, 2005 By: Holly J. Wagner

Mark Bittner has parrots and audiences eating out of his hand.

The parrots had homes in the trees of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill, but Mark Bittner was homeless.

He'd wanted to be a writer but was discouraged when he realized his heroes all seemed to have self-destructive tendencies. Then he wanted to be a rock star, but that didn't happen for him. But the parrots … the parrots … his thoughts kept turning to the parrots.

“They gave me traction,” Bittner said. “I didn't know exactly what to do. I didn't know how to make a living. It's not like the parrots are my living, but they opened doors for me to a new world.”

The parrots, a wild flock of escaped pets, also have made him a bit of a celebrity, since he wrote a book about his fascination with them and worked on a documentary with filmmaker Judy Irving.

“A lot of writers just write to write, and I didn't have anything to say for a while,” he said. “The parrots gave me something to write about. I had an unusual experience, and it was worth telling.”

Audiences think so, too. While much of this summer's spotlight fell on the better-funded March of the Penguins, viewers were quietly flocking to the other bird doc, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (out on Docurama Dec. 27, prebook Nov. 29).

“We were really thrilled that the wild parrots flew to so many theaters,” Irving said. “I think we had about 500 different cities. It is a much bigger theatrical release than most documentaries. I just hope it flies into every single home that has a DVD player.”

Fans will love the disc, which has more extras than movie.

“That was fantastic to be able to do that,” Irving said. “We came up with 90 minutes of extras, and the movie is only 83 minutes long. It was fun to go back into the editing room and pull out some of the scenes that were really good but just didn't make it into the movie.”

The book and film tell of Bittner's encounters with the parrots, who remain his friends and will still eat from his hand, although they don't let any other humans near.

“It really did change my whole life,” Irving said. “I now live on Telegraph Hill. We've been kind of caught up with the film. It took four-and-a-half years to produce the film, and we've been on the road with it for two years on the festival circuit and the theatrical release.”

The pair also has done numerous benefit screenings for parrot rescue groups.

“A lot of parrots are given up, because they are noisy and live for a long time,” Irving said. “Often people get into it without knowing what they are doing, or they will buy a Macaw as a d?cor item and not know what they are getting into.”

The film has raised awareness of other wild parrot flocks in the country, including in Los Angeles and New York, and the team — now a couple — hope the DVD will continue building on that. But Bittner said the parrots' plight should not be the only message from the film. Bittner hopes two lessons come through.

“One, there is another way to live other than just pursuing a career while all the life is sucking out of you,” he said. “And two, that people will realize that all animals have distinct personalities and lives that matter to them as much as our lives matter to us.”

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