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Bird Land 

Flick Chick

Published February 2, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

At age 58, filmmaker Judy Irving can boast a history of exotic adventures. She once photographed a British expedition's trek to a previously unexplored "cloudforest" in the Ecuadorian Andes. She lived in a hut built on a wooden raft in the waters around the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of British Columbia. And more recently Irving chronicled a flock of zygodactyl birds living in the city she now calls home: San Francisco.

Her documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, opens this season's Key Sunday Cinema Club on February 13 at the Roxy in downtown Burlington. She'll be on hand to answer questions, which might be plentiful. Nature lovers in the audience are likely to ask about the wellbeing of the gloriously plumed creatures in the five years since Irving began capturing them on camera.

Wild Parrots zeroes in on Mark Bittner, who describes himself as a "dharma bum" -- a term the Beats adapted from Buddhism to mean "homeless seekers of truth." The pony-tailed and perennially unemployed Seattle native essentially drifted through life for a quarter-century before he found his true calling in 1990. Quite by chance, Bittner developed an affinity for about two dozen parrots that regularly stopped by the leafy Telegraph Hill neighborhood surrounding his ramshackle cottage. These vivid tropical birds -- bright green with splashes of other colors -- probably escaped from cages, choosing freedom over domesticity.

The middle-aged Bittner is seen hand-feeding healthy parrots gathered not far from his door, and nursing those that are too sick or injured to survive on their own. He has given them names such as Olive, Pushkin and Tupelo. Mingus -- a feisty little character that dances when Bittner sings and plays guitar -- nests under the kitchen refrigerator. Outside, Picasso and Sophie are a devoted couple among the many cherry-headed conures. Connor, the only blue-crowned conure in the group, is a loner. The parrot dating scene doesn't include much cross-species romance.

Irving's introduction to environmental causes came in 1970, when she attended a Vancouver concert inaugurating Greenpeace. In 1978 she co-founded Pelican Media, a nonprofit company that specializes in eco issues.

Dark Circle, Irving's 1980s doc about the dangers of plutonium, won a top prize at Sundance as well as an Emmy after it was broadcast on TV. In 1995, Nagasaki Journal marked the 50th anniversary of the atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.

Irving's focus on parrots can be traced to a pet. "I had gotten a cockatiel," the New Jersey-born documentarian explains during a telephone interview. "To figure out how to care for it, in 1995 I bought a magazine, Bird Talk, that had an article by Mark. Skip ahead three years. Some friends suggested he'd be a good subject for my next film."

The project is as much a profile of Bittner, dubbed "a bohemian St. Francis," as an educational glimpse of urban parrots. When any of his warm-blooded vertebrate friends succumb to Darwinian realities, Bittner suffers. It's a jungle out there.

San Francisco has designated February 9 as "Wild Parrot Day" in recognition of the film's world premiere there. It opens this month in 35 cities across the country. "The buzz is good," Irving says. "We have no advertising budget, but we're getting the word out to birders through Audubon."

Although Irving's adventurous spirit has also taken her to Nepal, Botswana and Zimbabwe, she seems to be a proponent of the "think globally, act locally" approach to art. Up next is a short film about the Bay Area's habitat restoration project, which she says will reclaim 16,000 acres of salt ponds for "shore, water and Pacific flyway birds."

The Key Sunday Cinema Club normally doesn't announce the seven titles on each seasonal schedule ahead of time; members enjoy being surprised when they show up for 10:30 a.m. sneak previews of as-yet-unreleased films. But Irving's upcoming appearance was reason enough to make an exception to the secrecy rule. The winter/spring series runs every other week or so through May 15. For more information, call 888-467-0404 or email mailto:[email protected].

Another documentary and its maker will hit town next week: Worlds Apart: 9-11 First Responders Against War is Tom Jackson's 40-minute look at American and Afghani rescue workers. The film will unspool twice: February 14, 7:30 p.m., at the Champlain College Alumni Auditorium; and February 15, 6:30 p.m., at Community College of Vermont in Burlington. Both events are free.

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Susan Green


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