The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: Special 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (review)

I love parrots to the point of distraction, so I’m probably not the most objective person to be saying this, but: If you have never seen The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, you simply must. And now, this acclaimed 2003 film is available in a new DVD set that is the rare “collector’s edition” that actually feels worthy of the label.
The movie itself looks amazing on my widescreen LCD television, which is what you’d hope for in a nature documentary, and it’s even better with a film like this one, intended as a paean to all the wonderful nature to be found even in urban environments, where you might not expect to find, say, a flock of wild parrots. These particular creatures — a band consisting mostly of cherry-headed conures, though there’s also a blue-headed conure and a tiny pale blue parakeet in the gang — live on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco (though, as the followup bonus material points out, they’re expanding their territory), where they’ve been befriended by musician Mark Bittner, who took it upon himself to feed the birds and care for any injured among them. He appreciates their wildness, though, and ensures that the birds do not become dependent upon him.

All the cleverness and personality and individuality that makes me love these birds so much are on full display in filmmaker Judy Irving’s beautiful photography, which is as attentive to their needs and wants as it is to Bittner’s, who is as much a wild and sensitive a character as the birds are. (Watching the bird Mingus — Bittner has named some of them — dance to the musician’s guitar tunes, we begin to see the human as almost as much a part of the flock as Mingus is.)

There are villains — hawks! — and romance — Sophie and Picasso are the literal lovebirds — and comedy, and the obvious friendship and familial spirit of the birds is so infectious that… well, if the last line of the movie doesn’t have you bursting out with tears of happiness and understanding, you’re made of stone.

Since the film was made, half a decade ago, things have changed, of course, and much of the bonus material, spread across both discs in the set, catches us up with what has happened. There are multiple updates on the state of the flock (it’s grown considerably) as well as a look at how the popularity of the film has now made the birds a famous part of San Francisco culture. We also learn what Bittner and Irving has been up to in the interim (among the extras are two new short documentaries by Irving). If you’re gonna do a new DVD set, this is the way to do it, with a sense of retrospect and revisiting.

Some of the other material — like the copious deleted scenes and Bittner’s home movies detailing how he came to be fascinated by the parrots — are repeats from the 2005 single-disc DVD release, but first-time buyers will definitely want to head for this new set. The packaging makes it tough to get the discs out without touching the live side or ripping the packaging, but apart from that, ahem, minor quibble, this is one of the most beautiful presentations for a DVD set I’ve ever seen, which would make a really elegant little gift for the nature lover or documentary fan on your holiday list, or as a treat for yourself.

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