The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

This sweet and surprising movie tells the story of a flock of wild parrots living in San Francisco, and Mark Bittner, the homeless musician who spent several years closely involved with them. The image above comes from “The Parrot Pages” of his web site.

I don't know what to think about these parrots. It is disturbing that their flock has grown to about 200 from about 60 or so when Mark Bittner first got involved with them. I wonder how large the flock would become over time, and whether it would spread. There are actually quite a lot of parrots living wild in California, and there is a project, The California Parrot Project, devoted to studying them.

Lulled by the charm of the movie, I was unprepared for the sharp jab that Mr Bittner delivered to my moral gut, when he was asked whether a growing flock of non-native birds might be actually undesirable. I can’t recall the exact dialog but this FAQ on his web site gives you a taste of Mr Bittner’s evident distaste for conservationists like me:
Are they bad for the native birds?
This is a matter of some controversy. There are people who believe that because the parrots are non-native they are bad. End of discussion. I don't agree. First of all, there is plenty of food available in the city. Contrary to rumors spread by those who hate all non-native species, the parrots do not attack the native birds. They squabble among themselves, but they leave other birds alone. They seem completely uninterested in non-parrots. As far as stealing nests goes, it's interesting to note that the parrots nest in eucalyptus and Canary Island date palm - both non-native trees. (It's also interesting to note that most people who despise non-natives are of European descent.) The parrots make fine ambassadors for Nature, bright and noisy enough to grab the attention of jaded city dwellers, even turning some of us into birders. (my emphasis added)
Gosh, I don’t hate or despise non-native species! I’m not a puritanical zealot, frothing with rage as I expurgate beauty and joy in the name of a bloodless creed!

Well, except in spring, when I fill bag after bag with rip-gut brome and Italian thistle, and sticky eupatorium, and French broom, and sour grass, and – oh so many more… and leave them to rot their little seeds out.

(Above, a weedy brome grass.)

But I don’t hate them. I feel sorry for them actually, innocent plants in the wrong place.

(Above, a weedy geranium.)

(Another common weed, whose name I forget.)

I do get satisfaction from clearing out invasive exotics, but so much killing makes me depressed. So I have no-kill days when I don’t pull out or cut into anything, but just enjoy it all, without judgment about what is out of place, just sink into the warm fecund mass of it all.

After all, humans (and not just those of European descent) are about the most invasive species around. In particular, our home here and the outbuildings and thinned growth around it deprive the local wildlife of a good acre or more of habitat. To say nothing of the roads we use to get here.

How much of a restorationist am I in fact? How would I feel if grizzly bears still roamed these forests? Aren’t I just benefiting from the horrible deeds of those who came before? To say nothing of what those others did to the native people - or maybe better to call them the first wave people, since they arrived here a mere 14,000 or so years ago and began managing the land.

Restoration is a comedy. Like Humpty Dumpty, we can never really put the ecology together again. But I have a certain faith even so in what we call the power of nature. I exulted along with the wonderfully informed and informative blogger of Curbstone Valley Farm when she saw native plants growing in areas she had cleared of weedy invasives (just can't find that post back at the moment).

There is always so much more going on around us than we can possibly know. An article on worms by Frederique Lavoipierre in the Jan/Feb/Mar 2009 issue of Pacific Horticulture talks about the benefit of earthworms in the garden, and also mentions that most earthworms are not native to the U.S. I knew this before, but I didn’t know one effect:
In Minnesota researchers are studying the ecological consequences of European earthworms in forests, where the understory is disappearing, due to the non-native earthworm’s voracious appetite for leaf litter. The earthworm-free forests of Minnesota have naturally loose soil, with a thick layer of duff, and the actions of earthworms in the forest environment actually compact the soil. Native plants, reliant on a substantial layer of leaf litter, are often adversely affected. . . . the implications for our signature redwood forests remain to be explored.
Implications indeed. I wonder if parrots eat worms, d’you think?


There will always be influxes of exotic species, my goal is not to encourage the truly invasive ones.

Some years ago when working in San Francisco, I wondered about the parrot's place in the City. The reality is, they're probably less problematic than the European starlings, or even the rock doves. The biggest risk I noticed was to the drivers at the intersections, where the parrots nest in the traffic lights. I saw a number of people almost run a red light one afternoon. Wasn't sure if the parrots were more entertaining or the drivers! ;)

Thanks for the link too. The post you're remembering I think was the native Fritillaria affinis that popped up for the first time this spring. I'm also guilty of bringing non-natives to the farm though...tens of thousands of them. However, our European honey bees seem to get along with the natives ;) Much the same way I expect the parrots do.
queerbychoice said…
My understanding is that only the eastern part of the U.S. had no native earthworms. So the effects that earthworms have on soil do cause major problems for native plants in the eastern U.S., but California native plants are used to earthworms.
Sue Langley said…
As I become more informed, the more I appreciate the native species in my new area. Everyone has different tolerance levels for 'weeds,' One I can't stand, filaree, my neighbors like for the flowers!

I know I'll never get rid of hedgehog-dogtail grass because it's throughout our place and everywhere in the CA foothills. We're starting from the house and slowly trying to eradicate the worst weeds and planting native grasses. It helps to remember the Serenity Prayer.

I'm not sure what to think of the birds. Sometimes man sets something in motion and then really has little chance of stopping it. NZ had one native mammal only before 'visitors' brought all the others some of which ate most of the unafraid ground-living Kiwi birds.
Country Mouse said…
Good to know our soil is OK with earthworms, Gayle, even though most of what we have are the non-natives. Talk about the melting pot - it's all a jumble, isn't it. I tend to think the parrots are a small element, as you say, Claire, compared to starlings etc, and they bring a lot of pleasure. Yes, it was the Fritillaria post that's right!

Sue, I often think of the disasters people have wrought upon Australia and NZ as well as the US, even with best intentions. Like you I am on that journey of continuously learning more and appreciating our local natives. I was in a funk yesterday wrestling with all this, but today, the serenity prayer is with me! Plus I'm coming out of the overworked brain syndrome!
I'm also remembering the Bradley method of restoration - get one swathe healthily revegetated before moving on to the next. Don't give up on even the worst grasses - I think you can make a big difference over a number of years even though they are all around. Though I get a bit down now and then, if I think back, I do see a lot less weedy grasses than before. It just takes time.
Thanks for leaving comments, all!
Sue Langley said…
Another thought. I often think of a post where you quoted a speaker on restoration. She had said "weed and wait". A strategy for the patient...but well worthwhile advice, I think. Thanks for all your shared experience!
Elephant's Eye said…
In South Africa, it is the 'European descent' that planted pine trees and eucalyptus and Port Jackson wattle. After harvesting the large trees they found here. There is a suburb outside Cape Town called Hout Bay = wood bay. Now there is a bitter feud raging between Save the Shade Trees and Save the Fynbos.
Mark Bittner said…
Hello Country Mouse. This is Mark Bittner. My jab, as you call it, was not directed at you apparently. I'm referring to a rather rare specimen of human being who comes along and takes a militant position without knowing many details. There aren't that many of them, but they often occupy positions of power, and they bug me. It's the human beings who create the problems here on planet earth, and when nature gets the blame, I become incredulous. That's all. I don't advocate introduction of non-natives. But where something is ensconced, is not causing a problem, is just trying to live life, I support leaving them alone. I've never heard of any of the parrots nesting in a traffic light, by the way. I've seen them play inside them, but I've never seen them nest there. I can't imagine them being able to tolerate the situation.
Country Mouse said…
Hi Mark, and thanks for dropping into our blog. - Jabs felt are not necessarily jabs delivered, and generally indicate some uneasiness in the one feeling the jab, to be sure. It's hard to be a purist in this world, but coming from the U.K. as I do, a land under cultivation for many hundreds of years, to an area where there is actual unploughed wilderness - with such a rich flora and fauna - well, once we understand this, of course we want to protect it. Cities and gardens in the suburbs, those are different situations, and I'm really not sure where to stand as far as e.g. ferrets and parrots and other animals that escape and live wild. It depends whether they fit into a niche, I think, and nature's mechanisms adjust and balance. I notice from your movie that the parrots are prey to the hawks, and that is a different situation from e.g. cats and rabbits in Australia where there are no predators to maintain a balance. On this property and surrounding wild areas, I just want to do what I can to nurture the irreplaceable local ecology.
I spent 2 weeks in the Pasadena area visiting a friend with green parrots. They were so loud, and so nonstop, they put the huge flock of crows that have taken up residence where I live to shame. They started yakking before 6am and were never really quiet until sundown.

But they also took those palm dates off the tree and launched them at your head as you walk down thestreet/car as you attempt to get in it. Rude! But not the only birds that attacked me, I was also attacked in the back of the head one morning on Sunset Ave by something with a pointy beak, but it flew so fast I don't know what. I ended up having to block with a bag, it kept coming back.

I don't hate the parrots, but I sure disliked the volume of noise pollution.
Hi there,
I came across your blog, and see a reference to my article on earthworms, and would like to clarify the response from one of your readers to the presence of earthworms in California. Yes, all earthworms did indeed disappear completely from the Eastern US following the last age of glaciation. And yes, we do have native earthworms in California, but not the familiar garden nightcrawler (Lumbricus terrestris).

Our native plants are not used to this particular species of earthworm, which has a great impact on soil and organic matter, so although we may like them in our gardens (I do!), I stand by my admonition to keep them out of our wildlands! If you fish, don't leave your bait behind! Here is the original paragraph from the article I wrote - vetted by noted expert Sam James. The article can be found on the Pacific Horticulture website in the Garden Allies archive. After over five years of writing that column, I still have a special feeling about that column, written in honor of Darwin's 200th birthday.

Not Always Native
While earthworms contribute fertility to our farms and gardens, most, including nightcrawlers, are non-native species. Although native earthworms are found in some regions of the US, a large area of North America (NE US and Canada) had no native earthworms at all since the last period of glaciation over 10,000 years ago (and perhaps not before), until their introduction by early European colonists. In Minnesota researchers are studying the ecological consequences of European earthworms in forests, where the understory is disappearing, due to the non-native earthworm’s voracious appetite for leaf litter. The earthworm-free forests of Minnesota have naturally loose soil, with a thick layer of duff, and the actions of earthworms in the forest environment actually compact the soil. Native plants, reliant on a substantial layer of leaf litter, are often adversely affected. Even in areas with native worms, non-native earthworms are often dominant, displacing native species. The implications for our signature redwood forests remain to be explored. Once an earthworm species is established, there is little one can do to control it, but earthworms are unlikely to invade forests without help. (Never dump leftover live bait, which is mostly non-native worms, when fishing in remote areas.)
Sue Langley said…
Wow! Pretty cool, Mouses!
Country Mouse said…
Hi Frederique, and thank you for joining our discussion and for clarifying the situation regarding non-native worms. Now I'm curious to know more about the native worms, so I can identify them if I see them. Being a sentimental mouse, I'd probably relocate the non native worms I find to a vegetable garden! Though this would likely be a symbolic gesture only, given how earthworms breed! I know we have a lot of them around here because I see them on the road after rain. Like the Mediterranean grasses, they may be something whose presence we have to sigh and reconcile ourselves to, at least in areas where we put houses and gardens.