You Can't Go Home Again

I left the hill in September, 1999, but fate called me back in late 2000 when I became the caretaker of a house next door to the cottage where I'd been feeding the flock. I was reluctant to start feeding again. But after six months I became curious to know who was still alive and whether they would still remember me. They did remember me, and I resumed the feedings. I wish now that I hadn't. Regardless, my belief that the parrots had never relied on me for food was verified: In my year-and-a-half-long absence, the flock population had grown from 60 to 85. Not long after my return to the hill, the house I was living in came up for sale. My wife-to-be, Judy Irving, sold her place in Noe Valley and bought the Telegraph Hill house. It seemed at the time that the parrots and I could have a lifelong relationship, if that's what I wanted.

So, in 2006, I was still feeding the parrots, but infrequently. I seldom fed more than once or twice a week, and sometimes I went an entire month without feeding at all. This was due, in part, to the fact that I was on the road a lot, giving presentations on the book and film. I was also working on a new book, and whenever I stopped writing to go out and feed, it created problems for the flow of my work. Another reason I fed less often was that my relationship with the flock had changed. During that initial six-year period, the flock population had been small enough that I could recognize and name every bird. The ability to recognize individuals made my involvement more stimulating. But now there were at least 150 birds, and I recognized few individuals. The feedings had become mad free-for-alls with a cast of characters that, for the most part, I no longer recognized. It was difficult to keep up my enthusiasm.

I continued for two reasons. I felt pressure from people who were fond of the image they had of my relationship with the flock and wanted me to maintain it. I also wanted to retain at least a minimal level of contact so that I could be aware of any health problems that might arise within the flock. I think the first reason—the expectations of others—is a poor reason to do (or not to do) anything. And the second reason was gradually falling out of favor with me. I was becoming more and more inclined to let nature do its own thing. I'd seen that sometimes human beings can help nature, but that more often, because we lack the proper wisdom, we create unintended, negative consequences. Often the smart thing is to back off and let nature take its own temperature.

Engaging in Dialogue

Shortly after my visit to the park, I received an email from Jeff Ente, one of the feeders who had come to my book reading. He'd started an online wild parrot feeders group. Members sent e-mails to the group and posted photos and videos. He invited me to join, and I did, hoping to start up some kind of dialogue. At first, though, I just read the daily postings and familiarized myself with what the group was saying and doing.

In early November, 2006, I received a phone call from a friend who told me that a friend of hers who lived near the park had seen some young men luring parrots to them and then stuffing the birds into a sack. Alarmed, I e-mailed the group about this and received a reply from Jeff Ente asking for more details. He doubted that what I described was possible. He assured me that there were members of the group in the park every day, and that this couldn't happen without someone noticing it. Because the report I'd received was secondhand, I accepted his assurances and let it drop. Around this same time, Bill Widnall, the feeder who had originally contacted me, had to stop someone who appeared to be walking off with one of the birds.

Of the few parrots that I was still able to recognize was one that Judy had named Natalie. Natalie was a hybrid with unusual coloration. She had a bright, sunburst, orange-red spot on her chest. She was also dismayingly friendly toward human beings. I worried about her more than any other parrot in the flock. She was both its most attractive and most easily obtained member. On November 11, the feeder group reported her missing. I stopped seeing her as well. No one ever saw her again. The group felt bad about Natalie's disappearance—she was a favorite of theirs as well—but I saw it as the inevitable outcome of what they were doing. And they were doing something else now that bugged me: They were encouraging passersby to feed the birds. Still, even though my anxiety about the feeders was rising constantly, I made no direct criticism of them.

I didn't know it then, but around this time, mid-December, 2006, I fed the flock for the very last time. The parrots, who had once been a source of joy for, had now become troubling. The more perturbed I became about the situation down at the park, the less inclined I was to feed the birds myself.

While I wasn't venturing any direct criticism, I did occasionally voice some of my concerns, trying to get some discussion going. They acknowledged my concerns, but nothing ever changed. The feeders had this pleasurable experience going, and far from wanting to restrict it in any way, they wanted to see it grow. They were welcoming more and more people into what they were doing. On December 18, I learned in a post that they were encouraging children to feed the birds. The parrots, while more trusting, were still wild birds. Parrots, even tame ones, are highly impulsive. They bite hard and they can break the skin. I sent the group this message:

When I first heard about what your group was doing I was opposed to it. I thought it was too dangerous for the birds. But I moved on to a reluctant acceptance. I've been reading these posts for some time now and once again I find myself growing more and more sour on the whole thing. The disappearance of Natalie was predictable. And in that light, I think that encouraging passersby to feed them is incredibly irresponsible. So is allowing children to feed. The birds do bite, and what if some kid gets bitten and the parents sue the city? And do you know about Bird Fever? It used to be called Parrot Fever, and the birds can transmit it to human beings. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. It can kill. What happens to the flock then?

They never needed to be fed by me, nor do they need what you're giving them. It is all for our own pleasure and education. When it becomes something that puts them in danger, then our desire for the pleasure of their company becomes something selfish. You need to think seriously about what you're doing. I don't care what happens as long as they remain free and wild and out of danger.

The response from those who wrote back to me was thoughtful in tone, but, again, nothing changed.

I was in an awkward position. While I was increasingly opposed to the public feedings, I also felt obliged to keep quiet about it. So far the feeders had not come to the attention of the news media—the last thing I wanted. I was afraid that if I drew attention to the situation by trying to stop it through public pressure, I risked creating an even worse situation. The birds were like hostages. Save for the continual worried comments made to me by people who had happened upon feedings and were able to recognize them as a danger, I felt alone. I had no group to back me up.

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