I’m going to take a break from the format I’ve been using and jump ahead two years to tell a story that I recently remembered. If I’d included this in my book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, it would have gone in the chapter called “Free as a Bird,” which starts on page 200.
To set things up, in the spring of 1995 I brought into the house a bird from the flock who was very ill. She had a neurological problem that is now thought to be caused by eating rat poison. I named her Dogen (DOE-gun) after the Japanese Zen master. Dogen is the bird whose story I’ve been detailing in my recent diary re-postings. Later that year, In September, Jeffrey Chinn, a neighborhood local, found a baby parrot from the wild flock hiding beneath a car. The baby had strained a wing. At that time, very few people knew about my trip with the flock, but Jeffrey knew about me and brought me the baby, whom I named Paco. Because Paco had virtually no experience as a wild bird, after his wing healed I still couldn’t release him until Dogen was well enough to be released too. Paco needed someone to show him the ropes. When Dogen was ready in May, 1997, I released them together. For the next few weeks, the two of them flew free during the day, often coming back inside to eat, and occasionally spending the night. As they worked their way into the day-to-day life of the flock, the overnighters occurred less and less often.
Every summer North Beach (the San Francisco neighborhood I live in) has a street fair. I still wasn’t well known at the time, summer of 1997, but the woman who organized the fair had seen a slide show I gave and offered me a table to sell the photo-embossed note cards I’d been making to help pay for seeds and slide film. Thinking it was a good opportunity to put away a bunch of money to help fund my work, I invested in a big batch of cards. I was quite poor, so buying the cards was taking a big risk. The first day of the fair was a disaster. First of all, without telling me, the organizer had saddled me with a bunch of refrigerator magnets with parrots on them—generic parrots. I could keep the proceeds, but only after paying her costs. The magnets were tacky, and I hadn’t wanted them in the first place. Most of the people at the fair were from the suburbs, had no idea what I was doing, and were actually more interested in the refrigerator magnets than my note cards. But I didn’t sell many of either. It looked like the fair was going to be a financial disaster for me. I couldn’t afford that kind of a mistake.
At the end of the first day of the two-day fair, I was despondent as I made my way up Telegraph Hill to where I was living. When I reached the door I found Dogen and Paco waiting for me. They wanted to eat and flew through the door the moment I opened it. Then I got an idea. Instead of letting them back out, which I usually did, I made them spend the night. For a couple of hours they kept trying to lead me to the door. But I ignored their pleas. I’d saved their lives and now I needed their help. The next morning I put the two of them in a cage and carried them down the hill to my table at the street fair. Naturally, they attracted a lot of attention. A lot of neighborhood people were curious about the wild parrot flock, but I was the only one who knew anything about them. I was answering questions all day long. Not everybody believed I was real, though. For some, it was too absurd to be true. The guy working the table next to mine told me that he overheard a woman tell her boyfriend “this is nothing but a cruel hoax!” I loved that. Dogen and Paco saved my ass that day. I ended up selling a lot of note cards. The two little darlings were remarkably patient at spending the day in a cage, being stared at by crowds of total strangers. At the end of the day, I carried them back up the hill and released them. In the days ahead, I didn’t lose their trust, which had been my biggest concern.