There could be up to 400 parrots living in San Francisco’s wild flock today; perching on downtown windowsills, munching on juniper berries, and making their iconic presence known with a cacophony of frantic squawks.
Eight of the famous birds are now living in Sarah Lemarié’s San Mateo home.
As soon as she wakes up, the Chief Operations Officer of Mickaboo (a nonprofit bird rescue and adoption organization) spends two hours checking on each of the cherry-headed conures, most of whom are named after the San Francisco streets where they were found:
April and Lyon. Beale and Clay. Julian and Mooshi. Capp and Guerrero.
Injured or sick and therefore deemed non-releasable to their urban habitat, the parrots fostered by Lemarié are dwelling in her living room for the time being until they can find a permanent new home.
She feeds them a mix of pellets and fresh vegetables with a bit of fruit, usually lingering at the towel-lined cage belonging to Clay. Half of the wild parrots in Lemarié’s home show signs of bromethlian poisoning – a commonly used rodenticide – but Clay’s symptoms might be the most apparent: His head droops to the side. He can’t perch or fly very well. The towels, she explained, are there to ensure he has a soft landing in case he falls again.
“It’s a depressing scenario, because they’d never survive on their own,” Lemarié tells me over the phone. “It’s definitely a lot of work, but they’re also incredibly endearing.”
Lemarié first witnessed the daredevil antics of the screeching, red-headed creatures in a series of online videos about eight years ago, shortly after she moved to the Bay Area. She had no idea they would wind up changing her life.
A full-time project manager at Sony, Lemarié began volunteering for Mickaboo and fostering dozens of the rescued birds in her spare time. In the summer of 2019, she decided to quit her job and leave the “corporate hamster wheel” behind for a while. What she didn’t anticipate, however, was that a pandemic was looming just around the corner, one that would greatly impact the bird rescue organization’s efforts.
“I was trying to take a personal sabbatical,” she admitted. “My plan was to take a year off and get some sleep and read and exercise. But with COVID changing the context of Mickaboo’s operations so significantly, it was fortunate I had the capacity to help.”
Julie Buckner, a volunteer based in San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood, says she’s been working with the wild parrots for about seven years, caring for five of the non-releasable birds from the original Telegraph Hill flock. Like Lemarié, she believes all of them consumed rat poison, resulting in their inability to fly and difficulty controlling their movements.
Since 2003, Mickaboo has been documenting scores of fallen parrots from the wild flock that exhibit these neurological problems, but they couldn’t find the cause. At times, the symptoms were so severe that the birds couldn’t even feed themselves.
But a 2019 study led by the the University of Georgia Infectious Diseases Laboratory in conjunction with the nonprofit bird rescue confirmed that the presence of these ailments was consistent with the presence of bromethalin. The common rat poison is often fatal, but some parrots who ingest it do survive.
“Around this time of day, they’re pretty quiet and are sleeping and chilling out,” Buckner tells me over the phone one afternoon, referring to her own birds: Drummond, Starr, Octavia, Prescott and Valencia. “But they have their own minds, and they’re wild animals, so they can get loud and obnoxious. At about 3 p.m., they start yelling at me to open the cage and let them out. They have their own routines and demands – they decide when they want to eat dinner or go to bed.”
Since they first began roosting in San Francisco decades ago, the cherry-headed conures have divided into subflocks that are spotted near the Embarcadero, in Dolores Park, as well as the lower Haight, Noe Valley, Lafayette Park, Crissy Field and even as far south as Sunnyvale and Brisbane. But interestingly enough, the wild parrots we know aren’t the first to swarm San Francisco.
They were a different species entirely.
Mark Bittner is the subject of “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” the 2004 documentary that chronicled his unlikely friendship with the flock and catapulted the birds to local fame. In his book of the same name, Bittner is quick to point out that the wild parrots Armistead Maupin wrote about in his series of San Francisco-set novels, “Tales of the City,” were actually canary-winged parakeets who preceded the cherry-headed conures in the early 1970s.
From the 2004 Bittner documentary