Yesterday we had a rare visit from a flock of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill. Now this latter eminence, for those not familiar with it, rises 275 feet toward San Francisco’s north-east corner, one of the city’s most celebrated spots, for various reasons. It is easily visible from far away, because of the distinctive Coit Tower which sits atop it, and got its name in 1849 when a semaphore was constructed at its summit to signal to the city’s residents details as to ships that were passing into San Francisco Bay. The Spaniards had called it Loma Alta, or High Hill, and later it was known as Goat Hill, but these names have long since faded into near oblivion. The semaphore was dismantled after 1862, when the electrical telegraph was introduced, and a quiet and prestigious neighborhood with sweeping views eventually developed. Artists and writers and bohemian intellectuals settled in the area in the 1920’s, and their influence is felt there even now and in the adjoining North Beach neighborhood. It’s a picturesque spot.
The wild parrots who have added to the place’s notoriety are known variously as the cherry-headed conure, red-masked conure and red-headed conure. They are also called red-masked parakeets, and their scientific name is Aratinga erythrogenys. When they got here, no one has been able to determine. Before 1993 it was legal to import wild-caught parrots into the country, and they were brought in by the millions. These birds have never done well in captivity, however, and owners found them difficult: they were noisy and they bit and, in addition to those who escaped, many were probably released deliberately by people who simply could not cope with them any longer. A female mitred conure, or Aratinga mitrata, turned up in the summer of 1995. She breeded with the cherry headed conures and created a distinctive line among the San Francisco flocks. Two blue-crowned conures, or Aratinga acuticaudata, have lived among the other birds in the past, but none have been seen for years. It’s an interesting group.
The cherry-heads come from a small area on the western side of the Andes Mountains in southern Ecuador and northern Peru. The mitered conures range from southern Peru to central Bolivia and even into Argentina. There are perhaps 200 of these birds in San Francisco, but since they travel all over the city throughout the year, an exact count has been impossible to achieve. They do not migrate. They eat all kinds of things: juniper berries, pine nuts, cotoneaster berries, fruit from trees in domestic gardens. They love cherry blossoms. Some people feed them, though there is a city ordinance against this now, and many of those who lobby for the parrots’ welfare say that attracting the wild parrots to bird-feeders also informs hawks of the parrots’ presence, and hawks have been known to kill parrots. There are many hawks in San Francisco, large noisy creatures which perch in trees and on telephone poles and rooftops and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Few people would want to attract hawks into their yards, parrots or no parrots.
We have had visits from the wild parrots perhaps three times in the eleven years we’ve lived here. The first visit came at lunchtime. I was sitting at the kitchen table, beside our large window looking out over the city, when suddenly I heard a loud and raucous flock of birds approaching rapidly. As I stood up to investigate, they swooped in, about fifteen of them, and landed on the branches of the large cypress tree which rises above our upstairs deck. They chattered there for a couple of minutes, while I ran off to get my digital camera, but when I opened the window to begin my photo shoot they were frightened off and departed just as lustily as they had arrived. I could still hear their deep-throated shrieks when they were several hundred yards away, headed back downtown, perhaps to Telegraph Hill itself. And this is how they always announce their arrival: that raucous unmistakable group chorus, followed by the abrupt swooping in of a squadron of a dozen or perhaps fifteen birds. This is what happened yesterday too, just at lunchtime. I managed to get a couple of decent photos, however, and I’ve posted one above. I tried to get more, but the parrots saw the camera and decamped in a noisy huff.