semiotic_pirate: (Juicy Oranges)
[personal profile] semiotic_pirate
Let's keep them wild. Let's keep them free.









This is the PBS website on the documentary. This was a beautiful film. If you have a chance to watch it, take that chance. It has a boom-de-yadda feel to it. The most hard-hitting moment for me was when Mark talks about his need to find a right livelihood.

From Amazon's website: "Quiet patience and an observant eye turn a seemingly unpromising subject into a rich and fascinating movie. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill captures the life of Mark Bittner, a gentle (formerly) homeless musician who's befriended a flock of wild parrots in a neighborhood of San Francisco. Following Bittner, the camera zooms in on individual parrots, revealing their individual personalities and the traits of their species. This leads to Bittner's own life, the network of friendships that support him, and the ways in which the parrots--a non-native species--interact with both the natural ecosystem and the city government; just about every topic opens up another until a flock of colorful birds represents a microcosm of nature and society.

Filmmaker Judy Irving has created an exemplary documentary simply by paying attention to the details of the world around her subject. Everything you expect from a Hollywood blockbuster--romance, violence, humor, sorrow, strong personalities in conflict--is here in spades, except that the heroes and heroines have bright red and green feathers. Utterly rewarding. --Bret Fetzer


PBS links to Mark's book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill - A Love Story With Wings as well.

The following essay, written by Mark in 2007, describes what brought on the need to talk about and bring these parrots to the attention of the public mind. It also describes the battle to allow them to continue to be free and wild.


Introduction

In the spring of 2007, I found myself in the awkward position of working for the passage of an ordinance that prohibits the feeding of San Francisco's wild parrots in city-owned parks. While the great majority of people I've spoken with have understood the reasons for my stand, a few others have had difficulty with it, regarding me as a hypocrite. Yet it was entirely consistent with everything I've said and done throughout my association with the parrot flock. During the struggle to get the ordinance passed I was unable to talk about the issue in a very public way. I felt constrained by the very situation I was working to stop. This is my explanation of what happened.

The Background

This all began around 1997, when I received an email from a man studying a wild parrot flock in Chicago, Illinois. (Yes, there are wild parrots in Chicago.) He told me that in many states, government agencies were moving toward a policy of eradication of non-native species. In 1988 the flock he was studying had been targeted for elimination by the United States Department of Agriculture. But the USDA backed off when the people who lived in the area where the parrot flock nested rallied to protect the birds. He warned me that San Francisco's parrots might face a similar threat someday and that to protect them I needed to make them famous. At the time, I'd been studying the flock for four years and had considered writing a book. But I worried that a book might bring too much attention to the birds--attention that might be dangerous for them. But this fellow (I believe he would prefer to remain nameless) was telling me that the real problem for the flock could well be a lack of attention. His warning did make me feel more inclined to write a book. But, never having written anything of such length, it seemed daunting.

Then, in 1998, a bill was introduced into the California State Legislature that actually mandated the eradication of all non-natives species. The bill died quickly, but I was sufficiently alarmed that I went to work on the book in earnest. Later that year, filmmaker Judy Irving showed up at my door. A film seemed an even better way to create a protective glow around the birds, and I was happy to cooperate. Both projects turned out to be more successful than we thought possible, and with their successes I felt confident that the flock had escaped any danger that might arise from government agencies. But fame is a double-edged sword.

Unexpected Trouble

In late 2005, I received an email from a man named Bill Widnall who wanted to know if I thought it would be alright if he went down to the park where the parrots roost (sleep) and tried to lure them down with seeds. I told him that I thought it was a terrible idea. If the parrots became accustomed to taking food from the general public, some people might try to capture them. I'd never worried about this too much because the birds had always shown fear of other human beings, and I'd worked to keep it that way. I never let other people near them. I knew that an individual would have to spend a great deal of time getting the parrots used to the idea before they'd dare to come down to eat. The circumstances of my initial six-year period with the parrots--a situation that had provided me with enormous blocks of free time--had been unique. Not many people have that kind of free time nowadays, especially in a city as expensive to live in as San Francisco.

Several months after Bill's first email, I received another from him. He wrote to me saying that he'd ignored my advice, and now he had a bad situation on his hands. He'd spent around three months trying to attract the parrots with sunflower seeds until finally one came down to him. Soon after that, other parrots joined the first. They were perching on Bill's arms and shoulders and eating from his hand. Other people who lived and worked near the park started getting into the act. Initially the parrots were reluctant, but the lure of sunflower seeds--something parrots love--overcame their fear. Bill was writing to me because of his concern that some of the new "hand feeders" seemed not to have the flock's best interests at heart. He was worried about the flock's safety. Whenever he broached the subject of everybody stopping, the other feeders turned on him. He wanted to know what I thought could be done.

Uncharacteristically, I ignored Bill's email. I'd started work on a new book, and I didn't want to be bothered. I simply hoped the situation would go away. But it didn't. People started sending me emails and stopping me on the street: Did I know about the situation down at the park? Almost all the people with whom I spoke were alarmed by what they'd seen. Still, I did nothing. I wasn't sure what I could do. I didn't want to go down to the park to watch. It was something that, in my imagination, gave me the creeps. But I couldn't escape it. People began sending me links to photos on the Internet that showed the feeders and the parrots. What I saw dismayed me. There seemed to be quite a few feeders, and the birds were perched all over them. But I still did nothing, not even after receiving another email from Bill pleading with me to take some kind of action. Around this same time, I received an email from a woman telling me that when she'd questioned one of the feeders about the wisdom of what he was doing, he'd told her in a very rude manner to mind her own business. His rudeness seemed a bad omen to me.

What I Wanted and Why It Mattered

Some people reading this will ask themselves why it mattered what I wanted. I don't own the parrots. What right did I have to feed them and then expect others not to? To begin with, I don't believe that I had the right to feed them. It was a privilege, and by taking on that privilege I also took on a responsibility--a responsibility that I still have to deal with. One thing I've learned from my experience is that human beings should never enter the natural world casually or carelessly. It isn't fair to wildlife. You have to be constantly concerned with the effects of what you're doing. My interaction with the flock was not a sideline or a hobby. It was, for six years, the center of my life. Everything else I did revolved around it--including working for my own support. Every time I heard even a rumor of a possible problem--someone trying to trap them, someone trying to poison them--I tracked it down. I was constantly evaluating what I was doing and whether I should change anything. I would become anxious over the possibility of even a single bird being negatively affected by what I was doing. Ultimately, I came to see that it was not their willingness to trust me that made them extraordinary to me. Rather, it was the beauty of their wildness on display right here in a big North American City: their mad, noisy sprints across the sky; their joyful gymnastics on the power lines; their incessant, hysterical squabbling; the obvious care and affection that the members of a couple display for one another.

Because of my care and attention I came to know the flock intimately, and I saw to the heart of who they are and what they want. Put simply: They want to be free. There were a number of times that I grabbed sick or injured birds so that I could take care of them. Every time I did this they let out a cry of terror and woe that was genuinely heartrending. I came to know them well enough that I saw myself--legitimately, I believe--as their representative to the human world. Anything that threatened their freedom created poisoned feelings within me. And I vowed to see that they remained free. That vow is in a book called Tails of Devotion, a book that was published before this situation with the feeders even began. The editor, Emily Scott Pottruck, asked me to write down what I would say to the parrots if I were able to communicate with them verbally. Here is what I wrote, on page 82:

I can't do anything about disease
I can't do anything about the hawks (nor should I)
But if other human beings should threaten your freedom or existence
I will do everything I can to protect you.
Thousands love you, and I will call on them to help.

Back in my first period with the parrots, 1993-1999, I knew that my involvement would come to an end someday. The day-to-day interaction with the birds was never meant to be a lifetime vocation. In 1999, when news stories came out that I was moving away from Telegraph Hill, there was a tremendous outpouring of concern for them. San Francisco Animal Care and Control was flooded with emails and phone calls from residents of the city as well as from people across the country and even overseas. Everyone wanted to know what would happen to the parrots after I was gone. I was asked to testify before the commission about the situation. Some of that testimony is in the documentary film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Then, as now, I was calling for the very same thing: that the parrots be left alone like any other wild bird. (It's important to understand that they really are wild parrots. They're not "feral," that is, they are not tame parrots who have reverted to a wild state. The founding members of the flock were wild birds who were trapped in South America and then shipped up here to the United States and sold as pets. This is no longer legal, thank God.) The parrots didn't need special feeding stations. The flock had never been dependent on me for food. On several occasions, I'd had to stop feeding them for a week or more, and they'd simply moved on to other food sources.

But it wasn't just feeding stations that I was opposed to; I was opposed to any kind of program at all. At one level I thought, "Robins, scrub jays, sparrows, and flickers don't have special committees looking out for their welfare. Why should the parrots?" But I also knew that, over the long term, nobody could predict where such a program might go. My chief concern was that, no matter how well-intentioned, any program could eventually lead to the birds being put in cages. I was especially concerned about such a program eventually being taken over by certain individuals from the pet parrot community who consider themselves experts, yet seem incapable of imagining parrots as wild birds. The wild parrots had adapted comfortably to their new urban environment. They were thriving. Cold was simply not an issue. But some of the pet parrot people--and these were people who would be enthusiastic about taking part in any "management" program--could not get that into their heads no matter how often I repeated it. So I believed that the best thing was to let nature decide what happened to the birds.

A Visit from the Feeders

On October 24, 2006, I had an unexpected meeting with some audience members at a book reading I gave in San Francisco. It was a group of hand feeders from the park--Jeff Ente, Alex Bantov, Julie Zhu (if I remember correctly), and, I think, one other. My complaints to others about the feedings at the park had reached their ears. So they'd come to introduce themselves so that I could see that they were good and responsible people, that I had nothing to be concerned about. They did seem, at that time, to be decent folks, and they succeeded in getting me to relax about what they were doing. They invited me to come down to the park to see for myself what was going on. I promised them I'd come the first chance I got.

The next day I had some free time, so I got on my bicycle and rode down to check out the scene at the park. What I saw appalled me. There were around a dozen people feeding the parrots, and the parrots were everywhere--on shoulders, heads, arms, and even on the ground, running around the feet of the feeders. None of what I saw had any grace. The birds looked cheapened, like they were part of a circus act. Some of the feeders looked lonely to me, and it was easy to imagine them wanting to take a bird home for companionship. I worried most about the people who wouldn't care about the flock's freedom, who would simply see the situation as easy access to a parrot, as an opportunity to make some money. And capture was not the only issue. There was the very real possibility of the birds injuring someone, the city getting sued, and the birds then being regarded as pests. Also, birds could be injured if they landed on someone who had an inordinate fear of birds, something that I've seen does exist to a surprising degree. (This is, in large part, the result of Hitchcock's film, The Birds.) There were also issues of diet and disease.

As I watched, some of the feeders came up to me to introduce themselves. Some wanted to tell me how much they'd liked the book or the film; others had questions about behavior or the identities of individual birds. A few others ignored me, seeming to regard me as an interloper who had just better mind his own damn business. I said nothing about what I was feeling to anybody. I chatted for a while and then went home to think over what I'd seen. The only thing of which I was certain was that the warnings I'd been hearing for months were accurate: The situation at the park represented a real danger to the flock. I felt I had a responsibility to do something. But what? I had no idea.

You Can't Go Home Again

For those readers unaware of it, although I left the hill in 1999, fate called me back in late 2000. I moved in as the caretaker of a house that was right next door to the cottage I'd been living in before. At first, I decided that I wouldn't feed the birds again. But after six months of hearing and seeing them, I became very curious to know who was still alive and whether they would still remember me. They did remember me, and I resumed feeding them. I wish now that I hadn't. Regardless, I found verification of my belief that the parrots had never relied on me for food: In my year-and-a-half-long absence, the flock had grown from around 60 birds to 85 birds. Not long after my return to the hill, the house I was caretaking came up for sale. My wife, Judy Irving, sold her place in Noe Valley and bought the Telegraph Hill house. It seemed at the time that the parrots and I could have a lifelong relationship, if that's what I wanted.

So, in 2006, I was still feeding the parrots. But, as everyone who was following my web site at that time knows, it was a rather rare event. I seldom fed them more than once or twice a week, and sometimes I went an entire month without feeding them at all. This was due, in part, to the fact that I was often on the road giving presentations on the book and film. I was also working on a new book, and whenever I stopped to go out and feed the flock it created problems for the flow of my work. Another reason I was feeding less often was that my relationship with the flock had changed drastically. During that initial six-year period, the flock population had been small enough that I could recognize and name every bird. The ability to recognize individuals created a feeling of involvement for me that I found stimulating. But now there were at least 150 birds, and I recognized few individuals. The feedings became mad free-for-alls with a cast of characters that I couldn't recognize. I found it difficult to keep up my enthusiasm.

There were essentially two reasons why I continued. One: I felt some pressure from people who were fond of the image they had of my relationship with the flock and wanted me to maintain it. Two: I wanted to retain at least a minimal level of contact so that I could be aware of any health problems that might arise within the flock. I think the first reason--the expectations of others--is a poor reason to do (or not to do) anything. And the second reason was gradually falling out of favor with me. I was becoming more and more inclined to let nature do its own thing. I'd seen that sometimes human beings can help nature, but that more often, because we lack the proper wisdom, we create unintended, negative consequences. Often the smartest thing we can do is to back off and let nature take its own temperature.

Engaging in Dialogue

Shortly after my visit to the park, I received an email from Jeff Ente, one of the feeders who had come to my book reading. He'd started an online wild parrot feeders group. Members sent emails to the group and posted photos and videos. He invited me to join, and I did, hoping to start up some kind of dialogue. At first, though, I just read the daily postings and familiarized myself with what the group was saying and doing.

In early November, 2006, I received a phone call from a friend who told me that a friend of hers who lived near the park had seen some young men luring parrots to them and then stuffing the birds into a sack. Alarmed, I emailed the group about this and received a reply from Jeff Ente asking for more details. He doubted that what I described was possible. He assured me that there were members of the group in the park every day, and that this couldn't happen without someone noticing it. Because the report I'd received was secondhand, I decided to accept his assurances and let it drop. Around this same time, Bill Widnall, the feeder who had originally contacted me, had to stop someone who appeared to be walking off with one of the birds.

One of the few parrots whom I was still able to recognize was a bird that Judy had named Natalie. Natalie was a hybrid with unusual coloration. She had a bright, sunburst, orange-red spot on her chest. She was also dismayingly friendly toward human beings. I worried about her more than any other parrot in the flock. She was both its most attractive and most easily obtained member. On November 11, the feeder group reported her missing. I stopped seeing her as well. No one ever saw her again. The group felt bad about Natalie's disappearance--she was a favorite of theirs as well--but I saw it as the inevitable outcome of what they were doing. And they were doing something else now that bugged me: They were encouraging passersby, tourists, to feed the birds. Still, although my anxiety about what the feeders were doing was rising constantly, I made no direct criticism of them.

I didn't know it then, but around this time, in mid-December, 2006, I fed the flock for the very last time. The parrots, who had once been a source of joy for me, had now become something troubling. The more perturbed I became about the situation down at the park, the less inclined I was to feed the birds myself.

While I wasn't venturing any direct criticism, I did occasionally voice some of my concerns, trying to get some discussion going. They acknowledged my concerns, but nothing ever changed. The feeders had this pleasurable experience happening in their lives, and far from wanting to restrict it in any way, they wanted to see it grow. They were welcoming more and more people into what they were doing. On December 18, I learned in a post that they were encouraging children to feed the birds. The parrots, while more trusting, were still wild birds. Parrots, even tame ones, are highly impulsive. They bite hard and they can break the skin. I sent the group this message:

When I first heard about what your group was doing I was opposed to it. I thought it was too dangerous for the birds. But I moved on to a reluctant acceptance. I've been reading these posts for some time now and once again I find myself growing more and more sour on the whole thing. The disappearance of Natalie was predictable. And in that light, I think that encouraging passersby to feed them is incredibly irresponsible. So is allowing children to feed. The birds do bite, and what if some kid gets bitten and the parents sue the city? And do you know about Bird Fever? It used to be called Parrot Fever, and the birds can transmit it to human beings. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. It can kill. What happens to the flock then?

They never needed to be fed by me, nor do they need what you're giving them. It is all for our own pleasure and education. When it becomes something that puts them in danger, then our desire for the pleasure of their company becomes something selfish. You need to think seriously about what you're doing. I don't care what happens as long as they remain free and wild and out of danger.

The response from those who wrote back to me was thoughtful in tone, but, again, nothing changed.

I was in an awkward position. While I was becoming increasingly opposed to the public feedings, I also felt obliged to keep quiet about it. So far the feeders had not come to the attention of the news media--the last thing I wanted. I was afraid that if I drew attention to the situation by trying to stop it through public pressure, I risked creating an even worse situation. The birds were like hostages. Save for the continual worried comments made to me by people who had happened upon feedings and were able to recognize them as a danger, I felt alone. I had no group backing me up.

Mickaboo to the Rescue

Around this time Jennifer Erlichman from the parrot rescue group Mickaboo got involved. Mickaboo had been taking in sick and injured flock members for several years. Because of my travels, and because I was already full up at home with injured birds, I was unable to take in any more of them myself. Accordingly, whenever San Francisco Animal Care and Control received an injured or sick cherry-headed conure they called Mickaboo. Jennifer had been the organization's point person for this. One day that winter she came down to see a feeding, and, like so many others, she was concerned about what it meant for the safety and well-being of the flock. Like me, she kept her concerns to herself. On several occasions the feeders helped Jennifer chase down sick or injured parrots who were then taken into the Mickaboo organization and adopted out to people willing and able to care for the disabled birds. The feeders trusted her, and she began trying to talk to them about the dangers they were creating and possibly facing.

For many years there'd been a problem of juvenile parrots coming down with a nervous system disease. I'd never had the resources to find out what it was. Mickaboo had been able to determine that it was a roundworm called Baylisascaris procyonis. The parrots were apparently picking up the worm from raccoon feces, and the worm was getting into the parrots' spines and brains. She found this on the Center for Disease Control web site:

Baylisascaris procyonis, a roundworm infection of raccoons, is emerging as an important helminthic zoonosis, principally affecting young children. Raccoons have increasingly become peridomestic animals living in close proximity to human residences. When B. procyonis eggs are ingested by a host other than a raccoon, migration of larvae through tissue, termed larval migrans, ensues. This larval infection can invade the brain and eye, causing severe disease and death. The prevalence of B. procyonis infection in raccoons is often high, and infected animals can shed enormous numbers of eggs in their feces. These eggs can survive in the environment for extended periods of time, and the infectious dose of B. procyonis is relatively low. Therefore, the risk for human exposure and infection may be greater than is currently recognized.

Jennifer warned the feeders about this, but it had no effect. One of their contentions was that since I'd never gotten it, it must not be a problem.(Later, the feeder group had some communication with someone from the CDC who contended that a person would have to eat an entire parrot to contract anything. Still, the quote above is taken from the CDC site. Take your pick.)

Strained Relations

My restrained grousing about the feedings finally came to an end in February, 2007 when I learned that the feeder group's web site had started sharing links with the web site of a pet parrot club in Minnesota. I wrote to the group:

The way this is happening, you're going to start linking up with parrot groups all across the country, who are going to link up with other parrot groups who will all be coming to San Francisco to feed the parrots. Then they're not wild birds anymore. They're a tourist attraction, a tourist ride. Nothing good can come of this. You're putting the flock in real danger.

That was the beginning of the end of civil relations between the feeder group and myself. My accusation that they were putting the flock in danger angered them. But everything that I knew, everything that I'd seen told me that it was true. I knew plenty of people who felt the same way. The only people who disagreed with me were the feeders themselves and the passersby and tourists who'd never had all the issues presented to them. I've never heard from a single person with a deep involvement in wildlife issues who thought these feedings were a good thing. Nor did I ever hear the feeders come up with the name of anyone who did. Their defense was always that the general public enjoyed what they saw, so it was okay.

This was one of several lines of argument that the feeders began to elaborate as the controversy heated up. They frequently invoked the images of young children and people in wheelchairs being brought great happiness by the birds. Apart from being propagandistic, it is a human-centric argument. Human beings liking something is the reason that the natural world is in so much trouble today. The feeders also claimed that when the temperature got too low they performed a valuable service by providing food for the birds. But, as I've said over and over, cold is not an issue for the birds. I've seen how much cold they can handle, and it's considerable. Twenty-eight degrees is not a problem for them. The feeders also argued that parrots enjoy interacting with human beings, that they even seek it out. It's a silly argument. Try interacting with a wild parrot without having any food in your hand! Even if you do have food in your hand, it will take you months to win that bird's trust. Once the food is gone, the bird is gone. They want the food, not the interaction. They have each other for interaction. The feeders also suggested that we let the birds decide whether the feedings should continue. But who was going to explain to them that there are human beings who would like to own them? Who was going to explain lawsuits to them?

The chat room postings started getting hostile. On March 22, 2007 one of the feeders wrote that since the parrots weren't native to the area, arguments about their being natural were meaningless. He said, "If you want nature then the parrots should be exterminated like the eucalyptus trees…" Now this is coming from someone who purports to love them and claims a right to act as one of their protectors. Questions about "native," "wild," and "natural" aside, if you love something you don't even make hypothetical remarks about exterminating it. Comments like this one only reinforced my opposition to the feeders.

A lot of fighting had broken out within the online group. I wasn't the only one concerned about what was happening. But nobody was convincing anybody of anything. The feeders were defensive and, at times, aggressive about what they were doing. With the arrival of spring, tourists were coming by in greater numbers, and the feeders were continuing to encourage them to join in. As long as what they were doing wasn't illegal, some argued, why should they stop?

Going to the Government

It wasn't an easy decision for me to pursue a law. I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was considered unhip to support laws that attempt to control personal behavior. But when a particular human behavior creates an authentic problem, making a law against that behavior is a legitimate function of government. I had not fed the flock since December of the previous year. It was obvious to me that if I was still feeding the parrots while asking for a law to stop others from doing the same, my position would be weak. So I made the decision that my days of feeding the birds were over.

My first stop at City Hall was a public meeting of the Recreation and Parks Department. They listened and were sympathetic, but they referred me back to my district representative, Supervisor Aaron Peskin. So, a few days later I went to Supervisor Peskin's office and talked with him about what was going on at the park. He understood my concerns and agreed with them. We looked up the relevant ordinance, Section 486 of the Police Code.

SEC. 486. FEEDING BIRDS AND WILD ANIMALS PROHIBITED.

It shall be unlawful for any person to feed or offer food to any bird or wild animal in or on any sidewalk, street or highway of the City and County.

Supervisor Peskin added "park" to the proposed change in the law, and that was all. It did not prohibit feeding birds from backyard feeders or anything of that sort.

On May 10, the proposed change in the ordinance had a hearing before the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee, which consisted of Supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier, Jake McGoldrick, and Ed Jew. Supervisor McGoldrick was out of the country at the time, so testimony was heard by Supervisors Alioto-Pier and Jew. Both sides, pro-feeding and anti-feeding, were present at the meeting, and both sides made their case. On our side we had, among others, Alan Hopkins, a past-president of the Golden Gate Audubon Society and Jennifer Erlichman of Mickaboo as speakers. One of those others was Bill Widnall, the man who had started the feedings in the park and had come to regret it. We also had letters of support from, among others, Dr. James Gilardi, director of the World Parrot Trust, as well as the avian veterinarian who has been caring for the injured and ill flock members. On the other side, the feeders had themselves and a petition signed by passersby.

The two supervisors were uncomfortable with one aspect of the proposed change. It seemed to ban the feeding of ducks by children in Golden Gate Park. So the wording was changed to ban only the feeding of "red-masked parakeets" (the species' ornithological name) in city parks. The vote was 2-0 in favor, which sent the proposed ordinance on to the full Board of Supervisors.

At that point, the feeder group's personal attacks on me escalated sharply. Their arguments became more and more convoluted. They talked as if there were no difference between birds eating from backyard feeders and from a human hand. In all their arguing, they stressed only the rights of human beings. When it was useful to them, they claimed that the parrots depended on the feedings for their survival. At other times, they insisted that the amount of food they provided was negligible and had little effect on the flock. They'd also misinterpreted, to their own advantage, previous statements I'd made. For example: I'd spoken about other people having fed them before me. They decided that I'd meant by hand. Accordingly, they concluded that the intimate interaction with human beings had been going on for decades. But the hand feeding had begun with me. The previous feeders whom I'd referred to had watched the parrots at their backyard bird feeders. When I pointed this out to one of the feeders, his response was that I had no way of knowing whether others had fed them by hand or not. I had no proof that they hadn't. Then he mentioned Laurel Wroten, a woman who'd been observing the parrots at her backyard feeder before I became involved. He seemed to imply that she could have been lying to me. Besides having no reason at all to tell me such a lie, besides being one of the sweetest and most honest people I know, she'd lent me her bird diaries from that period, and in her diaries she'd never mentioned feeding them by hand. I was to encounter this kind of argument from the feeders constantly. Can you prove it? Do you have photographs? And so on.

The online arguing became so twisted that I found it a waste of time to respond. The personal attacks were relentless. They accused me of having gotten rich off the birds. They claimed that I was trying to maintain the mystique of the parrots for myself. Well, I'm not wealthy. Few people get rich writing books, and the film did well for what it was--an independent, non-profit documentary in theatrical release. By Hollywood's standards, it would be considered a bomb. Many, if not most, Americans equate fame with wealth, but it doesn't work that way. I make less than a schoolteacher. As for their assertion that I was trying to maintain the mystique of the parrots for myself, that seemed to contradict their first assertion that I was trying to get rich off the parrots. I assume that I would stand to sell a lot more books if there were thousands of tourists passing through San Francisco and having their own special Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill experience.

Whereas the feeders had once claimed to admire my explorations into the life of the parrot flock, they now doubted everything I'd ever said. One of them asked if I'd ever had anything published in a scientific review. I hadn't--it had never been a goal of mine--but I'd always strived for accuracy. I wanted to know the flock's reality. But many people believe that without a degree you don't have eyes to see or a mind that can think. They mocked my claim that a bird might bite somebody in the eyes. I'd seen that they often go after each other's eyes, and I'd had the corners of my eyes pecked by birds perched on my shoulder. The danger was real and represented a real opening for a law suit against the city. (If you question this at all, click here.) They searched endlessly for inconsistencies. One feeder assured me that my efforts to protect the flock were in vain, that one day the only parrots anybody would ever see would be those in cages, aviaries and zoos. I was supposed to accept this as clear-minded, adult thinking!

I never responded in kind; I never resorted to ad hominem attacks. I simply stuck to my position, and the feeders stuck to theirs. It was obvious that no one was going to change his or her mind about anything, so I quit the online group.

At the meeting of the full Board of Supervisors the vote was 10-1 in favor of the ordinance to ban the feeding. The only vote against was by Supervisor Ed Jew who, oddly, had voted in favor of the ordinance at the initial hearing of his own subcommittee. San Francisco law requires that the Board of Supervisors vote twice on these things. In between the two votes the feeders mounted an intense lobbying campaign with petitions, letters, emails, phone calls, and videos on YouTube--videos that revealed the location of the feedings, something that they had previously acknowledged would be a bad move. Despite their efforts, the second vote was identical, 10-1, and, consequently, veto proof.

After the second vote, there was a waiting period of more than a month for the law to take effect. During the waiting period, the feedings continued, and because of the YouTube videos and some local and national news stories about the law, the danger to the flock grew. There were at least two public attempts made to grab parrots. It was already illegal to take a parrot--or any bird for that matter--but this was something that had been nearly impossible to pull off before the situation at the park came into being.

The Aftermath

One day in July, a few days before the ordinance went into effect, Judy Irving, Jennifer Erlichman from Mickaboo, a friend Michael Stone, and I went down to the park to hand out leaflets and talk with the feeders. Because of all the publicity their numbers had grown. Most of them assured us they intended to stop as soon as the ordinance became effective, but others were argumentative. They assured us that they intended to defy the law, and boasted that they were eager to be ticketed--although they laughed at the idea that there would be any police enforcement. It was clear to our group that there couldn't be any compromises with the outlaw feeders. So we put together a parrot patrol that began going down to the park every single day to watch for violators. We also began talking to the various police agencies, explaining the reasons for the law and the need for enforcement. It's difficult to win enthusiasm from police agencies for enforcement of this kind of a law, and I do understand why. But the police response has been very good, and I'm grateful to them.

As of this writing, December 4, 2007, the feedings have stopped. I'd like to think that after the emotions cooled down, reason returned. Nevertheless, we continue to spot check the park. (If you'd like to volunteer for spot check duty, send an email to mark (dot) bittner (at) earthlink (dot) net.) It will take some time for the parrots to unlearn their familiarity with human beings, but I have little doubt that it will happen. They are still essentially wild birds who, because they cannot store food, have to keep moving all day long in search of it. But that's not a problem for them. They were made that way, or they have evolved that way--whichever you prefer. There is plenty for them to eat in their urban habitat. And that's true in every season of the year.

The feeders often claimed that they were simply following in the tradition of the man for whom this city was named: Saint Francis. But I would raise this question: What is a saint? A saint is someone who has mastered himself and has overcome his selfishness and self-indulgence. A saint is acutely aware of the effects he creates and is responsible for everything that he does.

Many of the feeders' arguments were merely semantic games. One of them told me that it's inaccurate to call the parrots "wild," given that they're nonnative. But that's just words. The founding members of the flock were wild-caught birds from South America, and at this point all the birds, except for one, have been born in the trees here. They have been taught to forage by their wild-born parents. Their instincts are the same as wild birds. They are wild birds. To me, denying them the tag "wild" was an unconscious--maybe even conscious--effort to justify the flock's domestication.

I'm constantly reminded that I "started all of this" with a book and a film. But what if I had written nothing and the birds had been destroyed by those in powerful governmental positions who hold extreme positions with regard to nonnative species? (This is happening right now to parrot flocks in several states.) How should I have felt then? It's ironic that it has been the government that has come to the flock's rescue. For that I must thank the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, especially Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Bevan Dufty, neither of whom had anything to gain by sponsoring this measure. I would like to thank the officers of the San Francisco Police Department at Central Station, San Francisco Animal Care and Control officers, and the Park Rangers from San Francisco Rec and Park Department, all of whom cooperated in seeing that the law was enforced. I would also like to give a huge thank you to the anonymous volunteer members of the Parrot Park Patrol. They've been unbelievably dedicated and have done an amazing job.

For many centuries the human approach toward nature has been based on our own desires. It's still controversial to say that animals have rights. Rights are seen as something political. But rights are not merely political; they are spiritual and inherent. They exist even when they are not recognized. It's not the government's role to give rights, but to protect rights. We human beings have an obligation to start figuring out how to make room for wild creatures. They have as much right as we do to live out their lives in freedom. And if the hawks sometimes need the parrots for food, it's not my business to question that. That's how nature works.

If you want to have an intimate experience with a tame parrot, which is what the feeders were trying to turn the wild parrots into, then you should go to one of the many parrot rescue organizations--like Mickaboo--where there are thousands of unwanted parrots living in crowded care facilities, waiting for adoption. And if you want to delight in the existence of a wild parrot flock, then the wild parrots must be left to their own devices. Let's keep them wild. Let's keep them free.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Bittner
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