In the spring of 2007, I found myself in the awkward position of working for the passage of an ordinance that prohibits the feeding of San Francisco's wild parrots in city-owned parks. While most people with whom I've spoken have understood the reasons for my stand, a few others have had difficulty with it, regarding me as a hypocrite. Yet it was entirely consistent with everything I've said and done throughout my association with the parrot flock. During the struggle to get the ordinance passed I was unable to talk about the issue in a very public way. I felt constrained by the very situation I was working to stop. This is my explanation of what happened.
This all began around 1997, when I received an email from a man studying a wild parrot flock in Chicago, Illinois. (Yes, Chicago.) He told me that in many states, government agencies were moving toward a policy of eradication of non-native species. In 1988 the flock he was studying had been targeted for elimination by the United States Department of Agriculture. But the USDA backed off when the people who lived in the area where the parrots nested rallied to protect the birds. He warned me that San Francisco's parrots might face a similar threat someday and that to protect them I needed to make them famous. At the time, I'd been studying the flock for four years and I was already working on a book. But I was worried that a book could bring them too much attention, which might be dangerous. But this fellow (I think he'd prefer to remain nameless) was telling me that the real problem for the flock could well be too little attention. His warning made me feel more inclined to continue my work. But, never having written anything of such length, it seemed daunting.
Then, in 1998, a bill was introduced into the California State Legislature that actually mandated the eradication of all non-natives species. The bill died quickly, but I was sufficiently alarmed that I went to work on the book in earnest. Later that year, filmmaker Judy Irving showed up at my door. A film was an even better way to create a protective glow around the birds, and I was happy to cooperate. Both projects were more successful than we ever imagined they could be, and with their successes I was confident that the flock had escaped any danger that might arise from government agencies. But fame is a double-edged sword.
In late 2005, I received an email from a man named Bill Widnall who wanted to know if I thought it would be alright if he went down to the park where the parrots roost (sleep) and tried to lure them down with seeds. I told him that I thought it was a terrible idea. If the parrots became accustomed to taking food from the general public, some people might try to capture them. I'd never worried about this too much because the birds had always shown fear of other human beings. I'd worked to keep it that way. I never let other people near them. I knew that an individual would have to spend a great deal of time getting the parrots used to the idea before they'd dare come down to eat. The circumstances of my initial six-year period with the parrots—a situation that had provided me with enormous blocks of free time—had been unique. Not many people have that kind of free time nowadays, especially in a city as expensive to live in as San Francisco.
Several months after Bill's first email, I received another from him. He wrote saying that he'd ignored my advice, and now he had a bad situation on his hands. He'd spent three months trying to attract the parrots with sunflower seeds until the first one finally came down to him. Soon after that, other parrots joined the first. They were perching on Bill's arms and shoulders and eating from his hand. Then other people who lived and worked near the park started getting into the act. Initially the parrots were reluctant, but the lure of sunflower seeds—something parrots love—overrode their fear. Bill was writing to me because of his concern that some of the new "hand feeders" seemed not to have the flock's best interests at heart. He was growing worried about the flock's safety. When he broached the subject of everybody stopping, the other feeders turned on him. He wanted to know what I thought could be done.
Uncharacteristically, I ignored Bill's email. I'd started work on a new book, and I didn't want to be bothered. I hoped the situation would simply go away. But it didn't. People started sending me emails and stopping me on the street: Did I know about the situation down at the park? Almost all the people I spoke with were alarmed by what they'd seen. Still, I did nothing. I wasn't sure what I could do. I didn't want to go down to the park to watch. It was something that, in my imagination, gave me the creeps. But I couldn't escape it. People began sending me links to photos on the Internet that showed the feeders and the parrots. What I saw dismayed me. There seemed to be quite a few feeders, and the birds were perched all over them. But I did nothing—not even after receiving another email from Bill pleading with me to take some kind of action. Around this same time, I received an email from a woman who told me that when she questioned one of the feeders about the wisdom of what he was doing, he told her to mind her own business. His rudeness seemed a bad omen to me.
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