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The Conures of Telegraph Hill

A casual interest in wild birds evolves into a unique attachment with conures.

By Mark Bittner

Mark Bittner, author of "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"
Courtesy Judy Irving, California
Mark Bittner, author of the novel "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."

You read where the flock and filmmakers of "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" are today in the December 2008 issue of BIRD TALK magazine. Read Mark Bittner's original article on the wild parrots, first published in the September 1995 issue of BIRD TALK.

In February 1993, I became the caretaker of a third floor apartment on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. This part of the hill is quite unusual because there are no streets, only walkways and staircases. Its one big tree-filled garden with houses placed here and there - a real paradise for urban birds. I had never been particularly interested in birds, but the area was so rich in them that I learned to recognize kestrels, ravens, hummingbirds, scrub jays, hooded orioles, flickers, tanagers and many others.

I was most fascinated, however, by a flock of wild parrots that often stopped in the gardens. What were parrots doing in San Francisco? They would perch on some telephone lines and a juniper tree whose berries they liked to eat just 30 feet from my fire escape. I counted 26 parrots. I learned that 24 of them were cherry-headed conures and two were blue-crowned conures.

My interest in the parrots increased significantly one early October afternoon when a cherry-headed conure flew over to see what I was leaving on the fire escape for the blue jays. Sunflower seeds! He was quickly joined by a few others. I was delighted. The door to the fire escape was glass, allowing us a clear view of one another. I stayed back about 10 feet. The conures began coming by every day and I slowly edged my way forward. After a week or so I got right up to the door and sat down to watch. For the next six months, that was where I sat each day to observe.

Gradual Acceptance
I loved their bright colors and their soft, brown, seemingly amused eyes. Their playfulness and incessant squabbling, screaming and squawking kept me coming back for "just one more look." At first they were skittish and would bolt at my every move, but gradually they grew accustomed to my presence. I began putting out the bowl only upon their arrival. It was about a foot-and-a-half across and could comfortably hold 12 birds, but this was only half of the flock and competition for position was fierce. I put out a second, smaller bowl. With two feeding stations things calmed down considerably. All through the fall and winter months, I rarely missed a day. I learned a lot about their behavior and personalities and I began reading up on parrots in general.

As spring arrived, it looked like I'd come as close as I was going to and I began to lose my enthusiasm. It was time to do something else. Then I had an argument with the neighbor below me. He liked to open a louvered window directly below the feeding area. It was catching feathers, shells and bird droppings. I agreed to not feed them on days he had the window open, but I was already close to giving it up altogether.

One day in April, the window was open and for the first time I had to refuse the birds. For two hours they called and called, but I couldn't break my promise. Finally they all left except for one of the blue-crowned conures to whom I was partial. His particular manner was to lean over the bowl as he ate so that all the empty shells dropped back into it. My affection for Connor, as I named him, overrode my good sense and I put the bowl out for him. About two minutes later a contingent of 10 parrots came swooping around the corner of the building and onto the railing of the fire escape.

I was in a terrible dilemma: I simply couldn't let them eat, but I'd gone to so much trouble to gain their trust that I loathed the idea of deliberately scaring them off. I made a quick decision to open the door and step out casually; I knew it would force them to leave. But they didn't! I was astonished. There I was, surrounded by my bright, electric green, red and blue friends. It left me breathless. They were all looking at me with untroubled, but puzzled eyes. I dropped to my knees and sat down next to the bowl. They weren't willing to come that close. After a few minutes they took off, and I was left in even greater anticipation of the next day. I should add that my neighbor relented and through the months ahead pretty much gave me free rein with the conures.

Closer Vantage Point
 I chose a spot 3 feet from the larger bowl and sat down. They accepted the new situation with one condition: I was not to move a muscle. It was, of course, a joy to be sitting so close, to hear the rustling of feathers and the whirring of wings, the immediacy of their screaming, squawking and cawing. But the instant I scratched an itch or stretched a cramped leg they would all bolt in unison. They usually came back after a minute or two. Finally I began to announce my needs and would point at the relevant area and then slowly go about my business. Remarkably it made a difference. They got used to my movements and gave me more leeway.

As pleasant as this was, after a month or so I became restless. Was it possible to get even closer? I stood up and walked to the other end of the 10-foot-long fire escape. Occasionally, a bird would pass by me on the railing and I would offer him, sort of jokingly, a sunflower seed. They'd fly around my hand startled, then keep walking. One day, one of them hesitated, then thought better of it and continued on his way. I hadn't seriously considered trying to feed them by hand, but this inspired me. Soon after that a bird I had never noticed before cautiously stretched his neck out to the seed I held in my finger tips. I quickly memorized his markings and named him Noah.

I'm sure Noah saw the advantage to eating from my hand: no more fighting at the bowl. Although he later proved to be a bit of a nipper, in those first days when I wasn't sure if what I was doing was even safe, Noah was a very sweet and well-behaved conure. He eventually got lost in the shuffle, and as his markings changed I ceased to recognize him. Every now and then I encounter a bird anxiously bobbing from one foot to the other foot wanting a seed, and I know that it's Noah.

The next bird to take the plunge was already one of my favorites. Marlon was one of the babies, and I could identify him just by the look on his face. Nothing ever seemed to bother him. No matter how wild the commotion around him, he would sit there eating calmly, a cool, dreamy look on his face. He later developed into quite a feisty bird. Murphy, a bird I believe is either Marlon's brother or sister, became my next hand feeder. They are constant companions. So it was natural for Murphy to follow Marlon's lead. Murphy has always been one of the gentler conures in the flock.

Another conure started hanging around, but didn't seem interested in eating. Scrapper was a mess. His throat and much of his chest were totally bare. He was missing many head feathers as well. He didn't care. Scrapper is family with Marlon and Murphy - a parent I'd guess - and seemed to be watching over them. He wasn't disturbed if my hand came close, unless I actually offered him a seed, and then he'd leave. Eventually, the temptation became too great and he joined our band.

Hand-Feeding Converts
Besides being a particularly handsome bird, I think Connor, the blue crown, was the most intelligent flock member. He and his mate, Catherine, were quiet birds, and being of a different species and not having the day-in, day-out fighting experience that the cherry heads were so rich in, they suffer accordingly. They are at the very bottom of the pecking order. I kept trying to lure Connor over, but he was somewhat of a shy bird and wasn't going for it. One day I happened to look down to my right as I was feeding the others and saw him climbing up a vertical bar of the railing. Halfway up I offered him a seed. He hesitated and then took it. I was thrilled, but I didn't let him see that.

Now that I'd won over Connor, I stopped encouraging new conures. Five was enough for the time being. They were becoming increasingly trusting and were unafraid of turning their backs to me. During one feeding, Marlon was looking away from me. I tapped him lightly on the shoulder. He turned around casually, I offered him a seed, he took it and turned away again. That was an unusual event, however.

Generally they didn't like me touching them. I would try to stroke their chests while feeding them, but only Connor and Marlon would tolerate it at all. If I persisted, I got nipped. I was bitten fairly regularly, but never with the vehemence with which they bite each other. Murphy would take my finger into his beak, but was careful not to hurt. Connor's bites were polite, yet firm. Marlon was the worst offender and would occasionally break the skin. Eventually he stopped taking my finger so far into his beak.

Every now and then I would slip into treating the birds as pets, always with disappointing results. It was uncanny how they would reward me by coming closer every time I resumed regarding them as wild. One such time, Murphy became the first to take hold of my hand with his foot in order to prevent me from pulling it away.

Exciting Displays
Observing them so closely, I was able to witness some unusual flock behavior. One of the most intense experiences I've ever had (and it happened twice) took place when they all stopped eating and for no discernible reason began screaming as loud as they possibly could. It went on and on for minutes without abating. The volume was overwhelming. Their eyes were wild and flashing, and their little chests heaved with the effort. Suddenly they all stopped and resumed eating.

Another display the conures performed on occasion was positively eerie. It began the moment they landed on the railing. Without unfolding their wings, they pulled them away from their sides and constrict their pupils. Then each couple rotated in unison in a full circle, paused, flashed their eyes and then rotated again. There would be several pairs all doing this at once - although not in synchronization.

Some of my favorite moments that summer took place after the birds had finished eating. Sometimes they'd stick around to groom and nap. I'd take a seat on the ladder and talk to them or just watch. It was then it would strike me how extraordinary the whole situation was. Directly in front of me was a little wild conure - one leg tucked up under, eyes closed, clucking its beak contentedly. I'd look at them and wonder about their true origins. It's impossible to know, of course. I've heard many different theories. I know they've been around at least 10 years and I've heard as long as 20. Six to eight of them have open leg bands with something imprinted on them. Some of them are the offspring of the original "settlers." It's not the only feral parrot flock in the San Francisco Bay area, although we certainly don't have the numbers found in Southern California. 

 At the beginning of September the first fledglings of the year appeared. Three couples had babies, among them Sonny and Lucia. Sonny had always been a terrible bully and, with the exception of Lucia, was despised by the rest of the flock. As a father he mellowed considerably. They had three youngsters: Mandela, Chomsky and Stella. One October afternoon Mandela ventured over to eat with the hand feeders, but they drove him off.

I always held the cup in my left hand and fed with my right. Mandela surprised me by flying up to my left hand to eat directly from the cup. This pleased me immensely. The next day Chomsky wanted to join his brother, but flew to my head first. This lack of fear from the babies opened the flood gates. So many birds wanted to eat from my hand I couldn't identify them all. The feedings became riotous affairs. Most touching taboos fell by the wayside. The conures would tug on my jacket sleeves, hook my palm with their bills and pull on it from opposite directions. Several of them started holding my hand in place with their feet - and they freely leaned their necks and chests against my hand to get to the seeds.

A Close Call
On November 11, most of the flock had finished eating and was grooming or playing on the telephone lines. Suddenly I heard a conure screaming in great distress. He was on the ground, a place they never went. Looking down I saw a cat running from the source of the sound. I ran back into the house and down into the gardens to find one outraged and terrified baby clinging to a trampled iris. It was Mandela. He must have swooped too low and gotten knocked out of the air by the cat who he then fought off. He had his beak wide open and was flashing it around menacingly. I scooped him up and stuck him inside my jacket. He quieted down immediately and crawled up to my shoulder where it was darker and presumably safer.

Once home I set him down on the floor. What an odd place to see him such a wild and bright bird in a dull brown room. He wasn't bleeding, and he could walk but not fly. His right wing drooped badly; he couldn't lift it at all. He searched the room for a place to perch, and finally settled on the bottom rung of a chair. I was so accustomed to noisy conures, but Mandela remained completely silent. I made an appointment with a veterinarian and borrowed a cage from a neighbor. I promised Mandela that I'd do everything I could to return him to the flock. He slept all night clinging to the side of the cage.

The x-rays showed the wing bones to be in pristine condition. The vet thought he had suffered an injury to a nerve and that there was a good possibility he would recover full use of the wing. I was to confine him to the cage for a week or two and then let him start flying around the house. I was also to leave him outside as much as possible to keep him acclimated and bonded to the flock. When we got home I put him out on the fire escape.

When the flock showed up, Mandela became extremely excited and crawled all around the cage. Sonny and Lucia recognized him and stayed with him even after the rest of the flock took off. Every single day that Mandela was with me, they came to spend extra time with him. Inside, once the flock had gone, he was as content and accepting of his situation as could be. He never showed any signs of depression. His eyes were bright and curious - and he was very tame toward me. I, of course, was becoming quite attached to him. I loved coming home and finding him there. He let me rub his beak all I wanted, but resisted my efforts at scratching his neck. Being only the caretaker of the apartment, I had to move out occasionally for brief periods of time when certain out-of-towners came through. Then I'd stay in a studio apartment at ground level in a unit next door. And so it happened during this time.

The studio was the perfect place to let Mandela loose to fly. It had low ceilings and it would be easy to catch him. I would be unable to feed the flock for nine days because they would never as a group come so low to the ground. The very first day I put Mandela out on the studio porch Sonny found him. The whole family spent many hours sitting on some wires not far above. I wondered what they thought I was doing with him.

Flying Exercises
Inside the studio, I set up a very elaborate system of ropes and perches, and began letting Mandela out a little ahead of schedule. He could lift the wing now, and even fly in short bursts for a few feet. In a few days he was flying the entire length of the room, hovering briefly, then changing direction. But the wing was still very droopy and seemed to tire quickly.

He was becoming tamer toward me, perching on me when he needed to while practicing his flying. He was even letting me, if I was very delicate, scratch his neck and stroke the top of his head. I could approach him whenever I wanted - except when I had on the heavy gloves that meant it was time to get back in the cage. It was going to be so tough to let him go when the time came.

Late one afternoon, 12 days after I got him, he escaped from the cage while outside visiting with his family. He flew up to the wires to be with them, they crowded all around him, and then they all flew away. Mandela had a three or four mile flight home, and I didn't have much faith that the wing was going to hold up. The next day my fears were confirmed when Sonny, Lucia, Chomsky and Stella showed up at my place looking for Mandela.

Three days later, I was back feeding the flock. I was a little sad about Mandela and being with the flock cheered me up some. It was raining and everybody was wet and difficult to recognize. Chomsky flew onto my hand. I was glad to see that I hadn't been regarded as Mandela’s captor. The conures were ravenous and it was a particularly unruly feeding. After about 20 minutes most of them had gone to seek shelter in the trees, leaving just Chomsky on my wrist. I turned my attention to him, examining him for new red feather growth when I suddenly realized that I was looking at Mandela. He had made it, droopy wing and all. I was overwhelmingly, noisily ecstatic. He had to know how happy I was. A lump of coal would have known. I rubbed his beak with my nose, and Mandela - who rarely made a sound the entire time he lived with me - began cawing lightly.

As I write this, I'm still feeding the flock, but my position here will be ending soon and I will have to leave "my birds." I love them and I'll miss them. I don't think you could say that I have their love, but I do have their trust - a trust I value greatly.

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