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Where Wild Parrots Perch, Accusations Fly

Bird caretaker Mark Bittner and a neighbor are feuding over whether to save or cut down two roosting trees.

January 25, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Bittner scanned the sky and anticipated the cacophonous arrival of his green-feathered friends, an adopted family of nearly 200 on-the-loose parrots he has made famous in both book and movie projects.

"Here they come," he said softly. "Right on time."

They're a renegade gang of escaped pets, born-in-the-wild juveniles and various hangers-on that include several parrot species. The chattering avians -- most of them cherry-headed conures -- wing their way every day to the shady confines of two towering Monterey cypresses near majestic Coit Tower. Bittner watches them with a parental eye.

He's not looking for red-tailed hawks but for what he views as a different kind of threat: His neighbor, John Cowen, wants to cut down the two remaining trees from a stand of cypresses the birds use to hide from hawks and harbor their young while they search for food.

Since 1993, the gray-bearded Bittner has been the flock's self-appointed caretaker, a bird branch manager of sorts who has provided regular feedings, nursed the sick and buried those killed by disease or cat or hawk attacks.

He chronicled his exploits in his 2004 book, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story With Wings," and the man-bird relationship became the subject of an award-winning documentary.

Last October, after workers using chain saws had felled the largest cypress in the stand, Bittner stood in front of the two remaining trees to protect them. Both of the trees are on Cowen's property near his small apartment building, which sits on a wooded slope overlooking North Beach and San Francisco Bay. For years, Bittner and Cowen have been sparring over the trees, which Cowen says are a health danger and an insurance liability because they are diseased.

The dispute is about both property rights and protecting the well-being of defenseless animals. Cowen believes the parrots will thrive someplace else without his trees. Bittner is tired of seeing animals pushed around. The birds fly a daily circuit that includes the trees on Cowen's land, but they do not perch there exclusively.

"Human beings think the world is here for their use alone," Bittner said. "These trees are not necessarily crucial but are very important to those parrots. Why put them through needless hassle? None of us really know what birds go through."

Cowen says he knows little about parrots but knows his trees, which he says are so precarious that he cannot buy liability insurance for them.

"Those trees have bone cancer, for lack of a better word," he said. "I've lost my liability insurance, that's the bottom line. If these trees fall on some UPS driver someday, I've worked 50 years to hand over my net worth to the mother of a deliveryman."

Bittner's cause has resonated in this animal-friendly city. Though large numbers of wild parrots exist in other urban areas -- including Los Angeles, New York and Chicago -- many residents are captivated by Bittner's relationship with this flock.

The popularity of Bittner's media projects has helped the parrots' cause. His book spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and the film, directed by Judy Irving, received several awards. Their work on the movie resulted in the pair becoming lovebirds of a kind. Bittner and Irving bought a home near where Bittner began caring for the parrots.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty has received thousands of e-mails supporting Bittner -- more correspondence than he has received on any issue during his three years in city office. Half of the e-mails came from San Franciscans, the rest from around the world.

"In a hectic world, there's romanticism to imagine this flock of wild parrots that have escaped homes, been let loose from pet stores, animals that come from a variety of lives to become befriended by a man on Telegraph Hill," Dufty said. "There are certain stories that touch a chord. This is one of them."

The parrot standoff has become personal. Bittner accuses Cowen of denying him access to an area he must traverse to feed the parrots. Cowen complains that Bittner has unjustly painted him as a "bird killer" to neighbors and city officials. Each has hired arborists to report on the health of the cypress trees. The experts agree that the trees are sick, but Cowen and Bittner differ on what should be done.

"I'm ignorant, but I'm not stupid," Cowen said. "These two really don't want this to end. It's not about the birds. It's about increasing DVD sales of their film."

City officials are close to brokering a deal. Mayor Gavin Newsom has appointed a go-between who has met separately with Bittner and Cowen, who have not communicated for months.

"I talk to both parties several times a day," said negotiator Marshall Foster, who heads the mayor's office of city greening. "We're looking to get the basics together to sign an agreement very soon."

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