What I Wanted and Why It Mattered

Some people reading this will ask themselves why it mattered what I wanted. I don't own the parrots. What right did I have to feed them and then expect others not to? To begin with, I don't believe that I had the right to feed them. It was a privilege, and by taking on that privilege I also took on a responsibility—a responsibility that I still have to deal with. One thing I've learned from my experience is that human beings should never enter the natural world casually or carelessly. It isn't fair to wildlife. You have to be constantly concerned with the effects of what you're doing. My interaction with the flock was not a sideline or a hobby. It was, for six years, the center of my life. Everything else I did revolved around it—including working for my own support. Every time I heard even a rumor of a possible problem—someone trying to trap them, someone trying to poison them—I tracked it down. I was constantly evaluating what I was doing and whether I should change anything. I would become anxious over the possibility of even a single bird being negatively affected by what I was doing. Ultimately, I came to see that it was not their willingness to trust me that made them extraordinary. Rather, it was the beauty of their wildness on display right here in a big North American City: their mad, noisy sprints across the sky; their joyful gymnastics on the power lines; their incessant, hysterical squabbling; the obvious care and affection that the members of a couple display for one another.

Because of my care and attention I came to know the flock intimately, and I saw to the heart of who they are and what they want. Put simply: They want to be free. There were a number of times that I grabbed sick or injured birds in order to care for them, and every time I did they let out a cry of terror and woe that was genuinely heartrending. I came to know them well enough that I saw myself—legitimately, I believe—as their representative to the human world. Anything that threatened their freedom created poisoned feelings within me. And I vowed to see that they remained free. That vow is in a book called Tails of Devotion, a book that was published before the situation with the feeders. The editor, Emily Scott Pottruck, asked me to write down what I would say to the parrots if I were able to communicate with them verbally. Here is what I wrote, on page 82:

I can't do anything about disease
I can't do anything about the hawks (nor should I)
But if other human beings should threaten your freedom or existence I will do everything I can to protect you. Thousands love you, and I will call on them to help.

During my main period with the parrots, 1993-1999, I knew that my involvement would come to an end someday. The day-to-day interaction with the birds was never meant to be a lifetime vocation. In 1999, when news stories came out that I was moving away from Telegraph Hill, there was a tremendous outpouring of concern for the flock. San Francisco Animal Care and Control was flooded with emails and phone calls from residents of the city, as well as from people across the country and even overseas. Everyone wanted to know what would happen to the parrots after I was gone. I was asked to testify before the commission about the situation. Some of that testimony is in the documentary film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Then, as now, I was calling for the same thing: that the parrots be left alone like any other wild bird. (It's important to understand that they really are wild parrots. Technically speaking, they are not "feral," that is, they are not tame parrots who have reverted to a wild state. The founding members of the flock were wild birds who were trapped in South America and then shipped up here to the United States and sold as pets. This is no longer legal, thank God.) The parrots didn't need special feeding stations. The flock had never been dependent on me for food. On several occasions, I'd had to stop feeding them for a week or more, and they'd simply moved on to other food sources.

But it wasn't just feeding stations that I was opposed to; I was opposed to any program whatsoever. At one level I thought, "Robins, scrub jays, sparrows, and flickers don't have special committees looking out for their welfare. Why should the parrots?" I also knew that, over the long term, nobody could predict where such a program might go. My chief concern was that, no matter how well-intentioned, any program could eventually lead to the birds being put in cages. I was especially concerned about such a program eventually being taken over by certain individuals from the pet parrot community who consider themselves experts, yet seem incapable of imagining parrots as wild birds. The wild parrots had adapted comfortably to their new urban environment. They were thriving. Cold was simply not an issue. But some pet parrot people—and these were people who would be enthusiastic about taking part in any "management" program—could not get that into their heads no matter how often I repeated it. So I believed that the best thing was to let nature decide what happened to the birds.

A Visit From the Feeders

On October 24, 2006, I had an unexpected meeting with some audience members at a book reading I gave in San Francisco. It was a group of hand feeders from the park—Jeff Ente, Alex Bantov, Julie Zhu (if I remember correctly), and, I think, one other. My complaints to others about the feedings at the park had reached their ears. They'd come to introduce themselves so that I could see that they were good and responsible people and that I had nothing to be concerned about. They did seem, at that time, to be decent folks, and they succeeded in getting me to relax about what they were doing. They invited me to come down to the park to see for myself what was going on. I promised them I'd come the first chance I got.

The next day I had some free time, so I got on my bicycle and rode down to check out the scene at the park. What I saw appalled me. There were around a dozen people feeding the parrots, and the parrots were everywhere—on shoulders, heads, arms, and even on the ground, running around the feet of the feeders. None of what I saw had any grace. The birds looked cheapened, like they were part of a circus act. Some of the feeders looked lonely to me, and it was easy to imagine them wanting to take a bird home for companionship. I worried most about the people who wouldn't care about the flock's freedom, who would simply see the situation as easy access to a parrot, as an opportunity to make some money. And capture was not the only issue. There was the very real possibility of the birds injuring someone, the city getting sued, and the birds then being regarded as pests. Furthermore, birds could be injured if they landed on someone who had an inordinate fear of birds, something that exists to a surprising degree. (This is, in large part, due to Hitchcock's film, The Birds.) There were also issues of diet and disease.

While I watched, some of the feeders introduced themselves to me. Some wanted to tell me how much they'd liked the book or the film; others had questions about behavior or the identities of individual birds. A few others ignored me, seeming to regard me as an interloper who had just better mind his own damn business. I said nothing about what I was feeling to anybody. I chatted for a while and then went home to think over what I'd seen. The only thing I was certain about was that the warnings I'd been hearing for months were accurate: The situation at the park represented a real danger to the flock. I felt I had a responsibility to do something. But what? I had no idea.

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