An Unlikely San Francisco Treat

PARROTS ON TELEGRAPH HILL: Mark Bittner with parrot on head Daniela Cossali

They are the most exotic residents of one of San Francisco's most unusual neighborhoods.

Years ago, a few wild South American parrots escaped from captivity and ended up on Telegraph Hill. Now they've grown into a swooping, squawking flock of 200, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.

"San Francisco has a reputation for tolerating colorful eccentrics," Mark Bittner, a parrot aficionado says.

When it comes to colorful eccentrics, Bittner fits right in. He was homeless, barely feeding himself, when he started feeding the parrots.

"They're beautiful, and they're startling, and, um, very funny to watch actually," Bittner says.

He gave them names. Studied their habits

"There's something really goofy about them," Bittner says. "They fight a lot, but its more like bickering."

He ended up writing a book about the parrots and last year, he co-starred with the birds in a movie about their life together.

"They opened the door for me, to show me what I can do. In a very odd way, they brought me all kinds of things," Bittner says.

Now Bittner has his own home on Telegraph Hill, a place where it is sometimes easier to be a bird. The houses here cling to the side of the hill. The only access is by way of steep staircases.

At first Wendy Anderson thought the Parrots might add to the hardship of living here.

"They're not quiet birds," Anderson says bluntly.

Another neighbor who makes the long climb to his Telegraph Hill home is Aaron Peskin, the president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.

"Where else in a dense, urban city can you have this enchanting flock of red-headed, South American parrots? It's, it's great," Peskin says.

In this enchanted neighborhood however, not all has gone well for the parrots.

"They've had some rough times recently," Peskin says of the parrots. "A ... developer tried to cut down their trees."

The parrots had long roosted in three tall Cypress trees where Stan Hayes could watch them from his deck.

"It's absolutely wonderful," Hayes says. Asked if all the squawking disturbed him, Hayes is clear: "No, no, no, no, no. There's nothing more magical than hearing those parrots."

Hayes says the birds roam the city, but always end up back at the tree near his home.

But then the owner of the trees called in the chain saws.

"Even as the chain saws were buzzing and as limbs were beginning to fall, we tried very hard to make a last minute deal with the owner of the trees," Hayes recalls.

Despite their efforts, the parrots lost part of their urban habitat.

"They've really been quite disrupted," Peskin says. "Their whole pattern has been changed," he adds, pointing to a group of cypress trees where the parrots used to congregate.

As City Hall supervisor, Peskin has tried to pass a law to protect the trees that are left.

Peskin believes strongly in the parrots' plight. "It is actually an economic generator for the city and county of San Francisco. People come to San Francisco to find these parrots," Peskin says.

Peskin says the parrots have become famous enough to rate recognition as a tourist attraction.

"They've become part of the legend and urban fabric of San Francisco," Peskin believes.

Hayes agrees. "They've become stars. They may have, for all I know, an agent," Hayes quips.

So far the city has taken no action to officially protect the parrots or their trees. The neighbors are still negotiating to save the two trees that remain.

Meanwhile, the parrots have kept doing what they do best: swooping and squawking and providing an unexpected sight in the urban jungle.
  • Sean Alfano

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