Friday Grey Matters: The Real Parrots of Telegraph Hill

i-c6d1a11c36b5ee49084c0c35ddd42cfe-mark bittner.jpgIt is not uncommon for a small population of exotic parrot species to flourish in a new niche in the United States. My old home in Sarasota, Florida had a large population of lories and Amazons which lived wild, making their homes in holes in palm trees in my neighborhood. Legend was that an tourist attraction aviary burned down in the 1960s, and the owner released all the parrots rather than see them killed. They stayed in the area, mated, and their numbers grew. A similar phenomenon happened in San Francisco in the area of Telegraph Hill, a neighborhood close to North Beach. A large population of Red-Masked Parakeets, descended from escaped pets, now resides on the hill, and was the subject of a movie called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. The parrots were looked after to some degree by a man who had taken a great interest in their survival, Mark Bittner.

The parrots' favorite roost are two old cypress trees on the Hill. However a homeowner wanted to remove the trees, citing their might fall over on his house. What resulted was a very civil display:

Creative minds at City Hall -- thank you, Supervisor Bevan Dufty and City Attorney Dennis Herrera -- listened to all sides. The collection plate was passed, and enough money was raised to pay for a tree surgeon and the planting of new trees to provide roosts in the years ahead. City leaders worked out a deal to handle liability and insurance worries. Thanks to Mark Bittner, who championed the parrots in print and film, the city woke up to a wonder.

All of this, of course, was lost on the parrots. Stand in any park or spot of greenery in the neighborhood and you can't miss them. Color, sound and motion blend when the birds shoot past like a feathered freight train. It seems as if they'll be around for awhile.

Feral parrot populations can be avoided by not releasing pets, and by ensuring that your pet cannot escape and become lost. However, in situations where these populations are already ensconced and not causing ecological damage, they can be beautiful and colorful neighbors worthy of conservation. Thanks Mark Bittner!

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Green parrots now migrate through Southern California twice a year, presumably wintering in Central or South America, and summering how far north I really don't know.

Man, are they ever loud! They're also easy to spot in flight since their wing shape is unlike any of the native species.

There are several groups established in LA. One flock of some kind of conures (as I recall) is--or was--often seen on the UCLA campus, and we had something else roosting in the palm trees in our neighborhood in Venice.

Sadly, not all parrots are so lucky. Witness the discourse about a problem with a rare Scandinavian Blue:

It's not pinin', it's passed on! This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late parrot. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace, if you hadn't nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies! It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!

Thank you Monty Python.

My family (parents & brother) discovered about 15 years ago that not all domesticated birds are cut out to be wild. We had our conure (I'm pretty sure he was a white-eyed conure, but they did get another conure after him, so I might be misremembering) escape, and we couldn't find him. The next morning, my parents were searching again and found him, but he was clearly in some sort of shock. He just sat there in his cage shaking, and he died that evening.

We lived in the hilly region of Glendale, CA, which does get pretty cold at night, so maybe that did it. We're not really sure. He was a nice little bird though, not as smart as Pepper of course, but we were quite sad to see him go.

His name was Payaso, which means "clown" in Spanish. Nobody cares about that but me, but I kinda feel the need to mention that.


Your story about Payaso is touching. Thank you for reminding people that simply releasing a tame parrot is not a "solution" to an unwanted bird and may cause the bird much trauma before it dies.

Mark Bittner documented the hard life that the parrots of Telegraph Hill live. Perhaps it is "nature's way," but I would not wish it on our companion birds.

Ms. Batts,

Wonderful article! Thank you for this article. I'm glad to hear this update on the parrots of Telegraph Hill.

parrots taking up residence in other countries will be hard to stop. Birds that were once prevalent in there own countries are now shiped (ie the legal way or smuggling) all across our planet and in some form or other they get out or are let loose. Take the sulpur crested cockatoo, its classed as a pest in out back australia and are shot or poised by grain farmers by the thousands, what I'm saying is these birds are adaptive, if they get out in say the usa or canada..they will be like the cherry heads.Some birds are not adaptive alas this is a shame but it could be a good thing to. I wonder if someone will do a doco on the Indian minor birds that now plague australia...i think not.

There are a lot of parakeets in the suburbs of London - Alexandrine parakeets in Lewisham, orange-winged parakeets in Weybridge, monk parakeets in Borehamwood and blue-crowned parakeets in Bromley.

Given that the native parrot of the SE USA is extinct, would it be better for the ecosystem as a whole to introduce a closely related species, or to leave the parrot niche empty?

Leave the parrot niche empty? That depends. If the parrot is largely competing for a niche with the Rock Pigeon - another introduced species, also known as the Feral pigeon, or sky rat - then it's not necessarily something we should bother interfering with. Plus, the results and the intentions of our interfering with nature can often be different. (I'm not advocating a deliberate introduction by the way)

I've heard of some places where they've concluded that the parrots are only competing with pigeons, and have left them on the grounds that parrot deposits are less corrosive than pigeons (caveat - I've no idea if this is really true)

Shelley - Good catch - Oops - I mis- remembered! It was the NORWEGIAN BLUE, not the SCANDANAVIAN BLUE Parrot

The Dead Parrot sketch, alternatively and originally known as Pet Shop sketch or Parrot Sketch, is a popular sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus, one of the most famous in the history of television comedy.

It portrays a conflict between disgruntled customer Mr. Eric Praline (played by John Cleese), and a shopkeeper (Michael Palin), who hold contradictory positions on the vital state of a "Norwegian Blue" parrot (an apparent absurdity in itself since parrots are popularly presumed to be tropical and not indigenous to Scandinavia).

You know, there is a blue parrot though, the Hyacinth Macaw. Its also the biggest parrot and just gorgeous! Oh, but the racket they can make.....

Darius, poor little Payaso!! Thats just heartbreaking. Really, thank you for sharing though. Its funny how our childhood pets stick with us, no?

I saw my first wild parrot in Guatemala a few months back. It was a mealy parrot, and quite hard to see. Our guide was able to point it out after noticing some fruit dropping from a tree and looking for a while to find it. Quite a cool experience.

There're also Quaker parrots in Brooklyn: