In eclectic, nutty San Francisco, memorable characters are everywhere. Years after they reach their zenith of local fame, we may wonder, “Hey, whatever happened to … ?”
Sometimes, the answer is they’re still right here, squawking and preening away. That’s certainly the case for the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, the red-headed, green-feathered charmers who became local celebrities thanks to an acclaimed 2004 documentary and a best-selling book.
None of the original movie-star parrots, who numbered about a couple of dozen, is still alive. But thanks to the, um, birds and the bees, there are now more than 300 of their descendents flying around San Francisco. They’ve split up into smaller flocks and now hang out all over the city — along the Embarcadero, near Crissy Field, in the Presidio, in Cole Valley, in Lafayette Park and as far south as Brisbane.
But the big city is a rough place for wild parrots, and they regularly fall ill or are injured. That’s when a little-known team of parrot whisperers steps in to help the birds who were once dubbed by The Chronicle “surely the most famous parrots on the planet,” but who have long since fallen off the front pages of newspapers.
“They’re a part of the whole identity of the city,” said Sarah Lemarié, a volunteer with Mickaboo, the bird rescue and adoption nonprofit that has quietly taken in about 140 wild parrots in San Francisco over the years. “It wouldn’t be San Francisco without the wild parrots. They’ve become part of the furniture.”
Mickaboo — its name is a combination of the names of the first two cockatiels the group rescued, is marking its 20th anniversary this year. But things are not all celebratory and joyful. The nonprofit is struggling to take care of so many birds, who cumulatively rack up as much as $50,000 in veterinarians’ bills every month. It is desperately seeking more volunteers and more donors and is taking in fewer birds, though the wild parrots so far continue to have guaranteed access.
“San Francisco is a hard place to be a parrot, and they struggle with all kinds of issues,” said Lemarié, a 39-year-old program manager at PlayStation. “When they’re fine, they’re flying around and they’re healthy and living their lives. When they’re sick or injured, that’s when Mickaboo comes into play.”
Like any movie stars 13 years removed from their last role, the wild parrots were once far more buzzed-about than they are now.
Tourists once walked the steep steps of Telegraph Hill to gawk at Mark Bittner, the parrots’ beloved caretaker and movie co-star, feeding them sunflower seeds. His now-wife, Judy Irving, memorialized Bittner and the birds in the documentary, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” and Bittner wrote a memoir of the same name.
The parrots were regularly the subjects of heated City Hall debates — about trying to save their favorite cypress trees from being chopped down and banning the public from feeding them in city parks, for the birds’ own good.
But when Bittner moved out of his Telegraph Hill cottage and onto other projects, the birds mostly dropped out of the public eye.
Asked why so few San Franciscans think about the wild parrots anymore, and why even fewer have ever heard of Mickaboo, Chloe Redon, a Mickaboo volunteer who has fostered 50 wild parrots in her Berkeley home, good-naturedly took the blame.
“That’s probably our fault for not doing enough PR,” she said with a laugh. “I’m just not a PR person!”
The 66-year-old retired technical writer currently has four wild parrots living with her. When the city-dwelling parrots fly into windows, ingest toxins, are attacked by birds of prey or experience some other calamity, people regularly take them to San Francisco Animal Care and Control. Its staff in turn calls Mickaboo to find a volunteer like Redon willing to foster the parrot.
Mickaboo volunteers often name the parrots after the San Francisco streets on which they were found.
Chloe Redon handles her personal bird Hancock in her Berkeley home. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle Chloe Redon handles her personal bird Hancock in her Berkeley home.
“All the cool streets have been taken, although we did get a Kearny last year, and we have a Clay and an Eddy this year,” Redon said.
Redon said that of all the wild parrots cared for by Mickaboo volunteers over the past decade, about 40 percent have died, 45 percent have been adopted and 10 percent have flown away. That remaining 5 percent represents a new fate for the fostered parrots: rejoining a flock.
Technically, it’s illegal to release nonnative animals into the wild, but Mickaboo started releasing parrots that had been nursed back to health into wild flocks in 2013.
“We would say we put them back where we found them,” Lemarié said. “We’re all about quality of life, and that’s where they’re going to have the best life.”
She said the parrots are released only if they’re healthy and free of disease, if they can fly well and if a flock flies by to be joined.
As for Bittner, another true San Francisco character, he’s still working on his book, “Street Song,” about the years he spent homeless before finding parrot friendship and fame. He thinks he’ll be done in a year. He still lives on Telegraph Hill, in a home he and Irving own near his old cottage.
Bittner said he tried to release parrots back into the wild after taking sick ones inside to nurse them to health, and he’s glad Mickaboo is doing that now too.
“I’m happy that they’re doing that — delighted, I would say, thrilled!” he said. “I know that’s where they belong.”