Mark Bittner is the hirsute epicentre of Judy Irving's documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Born and raised in Washington State his initial aspiration was to be a writer and then to be a great singer-songwriter. He moved to San Francisco in the seventies to pursue his dream amid the bohemian wildlife of the time but his dream forsook him and he spent the next fourteen years living on the streets as a Dharma Bum ('A homeless seeker of truth'), like many others who were young in the seventies. He got by through a combination of sheer ingenuity and the goodwill of others while at the same time conducting a personal odyssey of self-exploration that culminated when he encountered a wild flock of non-native parrots next to a house in which he was squatting.
Bittner's intense six-year relationship with the birds has led not only to the film but also to a book of the same name that he has written, thus fulfilling his early ambition. I asked Mark to tell me some of his extraordinary story in his own words.
You've been described as a latter-day St. Francis. How do you feel about that?
[Laughter] Oh that's hype. Judy came up with that term when she was raising funds for the movie. She said to me, 'don't worry, this is what you have to do when you're raising funds for a movie.' It's just hype. I don't take it too seriously.
How did you meet Judy? How did the film come about?
She'd been hearing about me through friends primarily but I was sort of a known character in San Francisco because of the birds. Two other people had talked to me about making a film but nothing happened. Then she came along. Originally she just wanted to do a little five-minute film because she was in between jobs and a filmmaker wants to keep in shooting trim. So she didn't see what was coming. After five minutes she thought, 'oh, maybe this would work with children.' She wanted to make a children's movie twenty minutes long but that didn't work out because the children kept looking at the camera and the birds weren't following the script but she liked the stories I was telling the kids. That was where it all pivoted. The kids were getting bored during the shoot so I would tell them stories and she had never really heard me tell those stories before and she loved them. So that's when she changed the concept of the film.
So the film takes place over how many years?
The film takes place over one year. I was involved with the birds for six years. She covered the last year and then there were pick-up shots that were done afterward but basically it covers the last year off my time with them.
How did you come to be in San Francisco ?
Well, you know, you grow up in some place that you're dissatisfied with and you have this idea of a place that you'd like to be. San Francisco was that place for me and it's really because I was into the Beats, not as poets so much as figures. So I was just attracted to North Beach which was one of the bohemian neighbourhoods in the fifties - an artist's community - and I ended up there by kind of a circuitous route. I was trying to be a musician and then it all feel apart for me but I was in North Beach , which was the right place for me. I was there because it had it's own tradition and I wanted to be part of that and I just never left. I didn't have any resources. I had no money and I had no skills.
How did you manage to survive?
Well I'm not unintelligent. I used to read Henry Miller a lot and one thing that really impressed me about him was the notion he had that you live by your wits, that's what a real artist did. So I have always held that as a fine moral principle! There was an ethic at the time that you test your nerve against something really hard. The street was one of those things. So it was part of my work as far as I was concerned. I didn't know what else I was going to be doing and I felt like I needed to develop myself and the street was the place that I did it.
So after 14 years on the streets you moved into this property next to the cherry-headed conures..
'Cherry-headed conures' is the pet trade name and then 'red-masked parakeets' is the scientific name for the parrots. I was the caretaker and then I was supposed to leave the property. The owners in the film bought the property and I was already on the property so it was kind of an odd situation. They had to make a decision with me. They ended up deciding that I was ok. By that time I was already deeply into the parrots.
Did you have an interest in birds beforehand?
I always loved nature but not in any kind of studious way. I've just always liked being out in the world. I think I was really just attracted by the magic seeing parrots in San Francisco . It just didn't make any sense and they're very charming. Anyone who sees them is really impressed by how magical they are. Connor [one of the birds] was from Argentina . The others were from Peru and Ecuador . They were brought into the US by trappers when it was legal.
It's interesting. The birds are migratory, in some sense musical creatures and you were homeless and attuned to music. In a way it seems natural for you to find them. Do you think that in a sense they met some spiritual need within you?
I think that my real answer, which some people may find difficult to take, is that I was meant to do it. I don't believe that there is a God planning these things out in advance but I think that everything is connected and that it's constantly changing and it's much more complex than we can understand sitting here and talking about it. But I think that I was supposed to do this, yes.
So in a way, while you could never have predicted it, it seems quite natural in retrospect.
Yes. Exactly. If someone had told me that I would be doing this fifteen years ago then it would have sounded horrible to me. It would have sounded nuts. I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to deal with issues between human beings: lost love and edgy kind of stuff. But I just fell in love with them you know. So I didn't think about all of that other stuff.
How long did it take for the birds to become accustomed to you?
Well initially I was just sitting behind a window watching them eat in a bowl on the fire escape. I watched them for six months and then I had an argument with a guy that lived below me. He wanted me to scare them away. So I walked out onto the fire escape, and I didn't really want to do it so I wasn't very scary, but I walked out and I discovered - I never would have done this deliberately - that they weren't afraid of me anymore because I was watching them everyday, three or four times a day for six months. They didn't let me touch them or anything but I was just standing in their midst, shocked. Then it was another month before a bird would take a seed from my hand. So it was seven months from the time that I started watching them.
And how long did it take you to observe certain behavioural traits?
That was pretty gradual. I had to start by identifying the individuals and that was difficult at first. I couldn't really say exactly. It comes in stages. Also I started taking notes about a year into it. That helped me. Every so often I'd see something and then I'd go back and check something else. It was very gradual. It was probably a year before I really began making strong observations. Before that it was more like entertainment. They're very funny. They do funny stuff. Once you can recognise individuals then you see what's happening between them. Like two birds would have it in for one another. They'd hate each other's guts and then you'd see that and they'd get into a fight.
Would you intervene?
No. Except in the case of Connor because he got picked on a lot I would try to intervene.
The characters of the birds come through strongly, particularly Connor: that loner figure with whom you seem to identify very strongly.
Judy identified that. I agree with it but I never noticed it. When she edited the film I saw it and thought 'oh yeah, right' but before it I didn't make the connection. I was just busy being the mother hen. I was so worried about this situation or that situation it was very difficult for me to be reflective while I was in the midst of it. When I knew it was coming to an end I was very curious to see how I would view it all because I knew when I was involved that I didn't have a clear idea of what I was doing. They're so active that when you're dealing with them it's hard to think about it. Then I'm making notes and hustling around just trying to keep body and soul together. It was a very active time for me so I didn't have a lot of time to reflect on anything.
You had a great opportunity to study the birds yet by your own admission you lacked the objective distance that a scientist would have. What do you think were the merits of your approach?
I never thought of it as scientific. I mean I started learning stuff and I wrote down what I saw because I was curious about stuff. The merit to me is that I think that we have a tendency to view nature in general and particularly animals as automatons: to think that they don't have personalities. I saw that they did and I think that the friendship is valuable. It's what people respond to most when I'm talking about them. I mean I have some interest in the biological facts but I'm much more interested in the spiritual dimension of it and that means to me how close can you get to something that is different to you in a sense.
But in some ways they're not that different to us. You can see that their concerns are similar. Like they're afraid of being injured. They're afraid of not having a mate, whatever. So that was a learning thing. Although I don't want to exaggerate how close we were. There was some distance because they're birds and I'm a human being. I couldn't pet them for example. But they'd let me play with their beaks, play with their toes. They'd pull my beard because they knew it hurt me and there would be little games that we'd play with one another.
So do you think in a sense that it was more of a philosophical inquiry from your point of view?
Yes because that's what I've been doing all my life. I'm concerned with issues of life and death and what we're doing to the planet. What's going to happen if we don't get our shit together because we're ruining the earth right now: that's my major concern. That we're going to make this place uninhabitable. So there are all these issues that are going through my mind: I'm especially disturbed by the level of materialism that the world's fallen into and I don't think that there's any hope as long as we're this materialistic.
Do you think that this film can make a difference?
You hope so. I do see people being affected by it. The real value would be if someone didn't think much about birds and then saw the movie and thought 'oh, well I didn't know that birds could be so personable', or whatever. You do get that fair amount.
You touch on anthropomorphism in the film. Do you think that the tendency to view the birds as quasi-human can be taken too far or do you perhaps think that kind of empathy is necessary to engage with nature?
I think that anthropomorphism is a horrible concept. It suggests that we have character and they don't. I think that you can be inaccurate in your observations and I think that's what scientists are bitching about. If you give an animal a characteristic that it doesn't have then they'll say that you're anthropomorphising it. Well you're just being inaccurate as far as I'm concerned. I think that the real difference between humans and animals is that we have greater intellectual capacity. If you say that a horse counted up to twelve and then subtracted five, I don't believe you. But I know from my own experience that they have a lot of the same character traits that we do. They have a sense of humour; they feel sad, they're curious about things. I've watched them make decisions. In some ways the only differences are just degrees of intellectual capacity. I think that anthropomorphism is a flawed concept in the way that it's normally used. It suggests that they're just robots and that we're not. The reason we have this problem is because we're anthropocentric. We see human beings as having 'it' and nothing else as having 'it.'
Were you involved in the editing?
I was not. There was thirty-five hours of footage. I was involved in the logging because I knew who all the birds were and what was going on in the footage but we both agreed that it would have been wrong for me to be involved in the editing. It wouldn't have been a documentary anymore. It would have been a vanity piece or something. Anyway it's something that she would never tolerate: someone telling her how to edit something. She's very strong with her ideas. All the narration was done with her just interviewing me over a couple of months, asking me and then recording it. So I knew what her interests were. So when she finally edited it was pretty much what I would have guessed but it was the quality of the work that I was really impressed with: how good a filmmaker she is.
Have you begun to see your life as a more coherent narrative since the film's success?
One of the things that's interesting about this for me is that I was struggling for a long time trying to figure out where to go and it's not like the birds are my purpose in life. They're not. They opened all of these doors for me and now I do have work that I can do and that was really my frustration. I didn't know what work I wanted to do. Often when I do Q & As they'll say 'oh, you were having a great time being a bum for so long. How does it feel to be so busy?' and I'll say, 'Well, I always wanted to be.' I always wanted to give 100% but you can't give 100% unless you really believe in what you're doing. That's what I was having trouble finding and what that really is to me is writing. I working on a book now, not about birds, and the birds gave me a story to tell and a way to use a skill that I already had: everything that I needed the birds brought.
What's the situation with the parrots now? Are you still involved with them?
I came back because I had a caretaking job again right next door to where I'd been living. I was working on the book. This was about a year after the end of the film. I didn't see myself getting involved with the birds again at all. One day I just got very curious. I wanted to know if Sylvie was still alive and that kind of stuff and would they still remember me? They did. I had this little test and they came right to me as if no time had passed. This was after a year and a half because for six months I just wrote. I'm not involved the way I was before because I'm travelling all the time but even if I wasn't I wouldn't be seeing them as much but I keep in touch. They took over my life for six years and it was a good six years but I couldn't live that way for my whole life.
How do you feel to be associated with parrots now?
One of the problems that we've had with the film is getting past that image that people have of nature documentaries. The title is bit of an obstacle that way but to me it's partly a poem, it's partly a meditation. It's a story. It's not a nature documentary. There's a superficiality about nature documentaries that's just a way of killing time. They don't really get to the heart of the matter and I think there's a tendency within the bohemian leftwing world - the world I'm from - to see a serious subject as human beings and their angst, their despair, their bitterness. That's a worthwhile subject but this is not. I grew up in that world. I don't like the fact that I wince sometimes when I have to explain my relationship with a flock of birds but at this point as far as I'm concerned that's just a conditioned reflex. I know that this is a good subject.
What do you think about nature documentaries more generally, particularly those with a more scientific point of view?
Well I think that particularly with these nature documentaries. You'll see five different grizzly bears that are supposed to be just one bear. They're using those five different shots as representative of a bear but they're not really representing a bear, they don't know that bear's story. Whereas this film knows the individual birds and is telling you their individual stories. We don't use stand-ins for example. Well, we do in one instance. Tupelo was dead when we filmed that so we used a bird that was in similar condition. Other than that if we were talking about one bird and trying to tell a story, we used footage of that bird. One thing I would add is that some of what's in the film are jokes. The best example I think of is Scrapper and Scrapperella: when they get divorced and I make a joke about him being hen-pecked but it is a joke. I don't know why they got divorced . There are jokes in the film.