SAN FRANCISCO — The wild parrots that call San Francisco home have become a given of city life, squawking their way to their favorite spots, delighting tourists. The famous flock is now about 300 strong, more than triple what it was 10 years ago.
But that, it turns out, is good and bad news for the birds.
A local bird rescue, which was founded to rescue abandoned pet cockatiels, is inundated with wild parrots who need care, from fledgings that crash and break a wing or leg to birds stricken by illness to those injured by predators or accident.
Just when the rescue group, Mickaboo Companion Bird Rescue, is overwhelmed with birds of all species, including canaries, cocktails and amazons – many surrendered by owners grappling with hard times – it is also handling more and more members of the wild flock.
"As a flock, it's healthy, it's growing," said Jennifer Ehrlichman, the rescue's wild conure coordinator. "There has always been a percentage that falls ill or gets injured. The percentage hasn't changed. There are just more birds."
The rescue group, whose 100 members care for birds in their homes, has 225 birds of all kinds waiting to be adopted and has run out of volunteers who can take in wild parrots.
That puts the rescue in the midst of a bonafide wild parrot emergency.
Mickaboo, which has taken in 60 wild parrots since it gained 5013c non-profit status in 2003, has 18 wild parrots waiting to be adopted, the most ever at one time.
Ehrlichman, a fashion designer, is fostering five of the cherry-headed conures, in addition to the one parrot she adopted seven years ago.
"We're getting more birds and losing more adoptive homes because of the recession," Erlichman said.
The parrots, who tend to break up into small groups during the day, spreading their wings and chatter all over the city, have a fan base. They were immortalized in the 2005 documentary, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," based on the 2004 book of the same name by Mark Bittner, and are mentioned in guide books and monitored by tour groups who show off the birds to tourists on double-decker buses.
How the birds, natives of South America, came to take up residence in San Francisco is a matter of speculation, even legend. Bittner, who devoted years to chronicling and caring for them, first noticed the parrots in 1989, when the flock numbered just 4 – a mated pair and their offspring. The adults wore quarantine bands, suggesting they had been released by, or escaped from, importers.
By 1994, Bittner and his neighbors on Telegraph Hill counted 26 parrots. By 1999, 50.
Not all are related. The flock has included cherry-headed conures, mitred conures with half-red, half-green heads, blue-crowned conures and mitred-cherry-head hybrids.
In 2007, San Francisco banned feeding the parrots because they were falling ill to a bone disease caused by eating too many seeds and not enough of the blossoms and other food they would normally eat. They were also losing their foraging instincts and street smarts, making them easy targets for predators.
They fall prey not only to hawks, but to a tiny worm thought to come from raccoons, Erlichman said. The worm causes a neurological disease marked by dizziness and the inability to fly.
Some of the parrots currently up for adoption have fallen victim to this illness. John Graziano, a Mickaboo volunteer who is fostering seven birds, has three members of the wild flock holding court in his Berkeley living room, two of them have the illness. The other day, all three were squawking loudly in a language that wild parrot advocates say is unique to San Francisco.
"Birds that haven't been with the flock don't make the same noises," Graziano said.
Mal Raff, a volunteer who raised four of the wild parrots since they were naked infants says it's true: his birds don't speak San Francisco wild parrot.
They do coo and kiss when visitors come to see them in their aviary in Raff's backyard. The youngsters, nearing a year old, are up for adoption, at least in theory.
"They're like my kids," said Raff, a jazz musician and astrophysicist. "I couldn't give them to just anybody."
That's equally true of Mickaboo. Potential adopters are put through a rigorous screening, including a home visit and a mandatory class on bird care, said Erlichman.
"I went through it," she said. "Now I teach the class."