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Menlo Park hosts 'January is for the Birds' activity series

Events include screening of 'The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill' and a talk with the duo behind the documentary

The Menlo Park Library is dedicating a series of 13 events throughout the month of January to bird-themed activities for adults and children.

Key among those are a screening of "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," held Jan. 2.

On Saturday, Jan. 5, the filmmaker behind that documentary, Judy Irving, and the subject of the film and author of a book by the same name, Mark Bittner will speak about their work in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers, 701 Laurel St., from 11 a.m. to noon.

Bittner is best known as the bohemian "Parrot Man" who chronicled his six-year relationship with San Francisco's feral parrot population, during which he painstakingly observed and befriended them, in his book, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."

Irving directed the feature-length documentary of the same name. (Fans will be happy to know that Irving and Bittner, whose romance serves as a delightful twist at the end of the film, are still happily married).

Bittner's next book, "Street Song," will focus on his time as a San Francisco street musician. The city, he said, "used to be a lot more interesting. The most interesting people can't afford to live here anymore."

The parrots, however, continue to thrive. The birds, Bittner said in an interview, are "colorful, humorous, intelligent, high-strung and very interesting to watch." Though he's no longer directly involved with the urban flock, which now numbers in the hundreds, he still keeps a watchful eye "making sure no one is messing with them," he said, as they go about their business, foraging for fruits and seeds and engaging in their sophisticated social interactions.

Though fond of the parrots, Irving has a different favorite bird. In 2014, she released "Pelican Dreams," about the challenges faced by pelicans, both in general and specifically, including the story of a starving California brown pelican named Gigi (rescued from the Golden Gate Bridge). She's also named her nonprofit production company Pelican Media.

"The pelican has always been my favorite bird since I was a little kid," Irving said. "I just love the combination of grace and awkwardness. I can relate to that," she laughed.

Irving, who is based in San Francisco, has a Midpeninsula connection to her film career: She earned her master's degree in film from Stanford University in 1973. Her fondest memory of her time on The Farm, she said, is of learning technique from Ron Alexander, who emphasized an engaging, narrative-based storytelling style rather than using news-style, talking-head interviews.

"We learned how to tell a story by filming what people actually do and then figuring out how to make the narrative work within those action sequences," she said. "That's what I've been trying to do for my entire film career and I learned it at Stanford."

Irving's work often focuses on environmental issues.

"My mind always goes to San Francisco Bay. It's very personal to me," Irving said, noting that she's been a dedicated bay swimmer for 32 years and has witnessed a decline in biodiversity and populations of marine life, from starfish to sea lions.

"If we take care of the Bay like we should, then we're going a long way to solving our environmental issues in the Bay Area," she said. "We could all try to drive less, recycle more and all try in our own way get off the materialist cultural pathway."

More events

Some of the other events planned for the "January is for the Birds" series are as follows:

● Tuesday, Jan. 8, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Irving's follow-up bird documentary, "Pelican Dreams," will be screened at the Menlo Park main library, 800 Alma St.

● Wednesday, Jan. 9, from 7 to 8 p.m., biologist Maria Viteri of Stanford's Hadly Lab will give a talk called, "Birds, Bats, and Pterosaurs: The Independent Evolutions of Powered Flight," at the main library, 800 Alma St.

● Sunday, Jan 13, from 2 to 3 p.m., Yiwei Wang, Ph.D., executive director of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, will talk about that organization's avian research at the Belle Haven library, 413 Ivy Drive.

Other activities scheduled include a paint-your-own birdhouse session, a presentation about raptors from a wildlife photographer, and a talk about attracting birds to one's garden.

Go to menlopark.org/birds for the full schedule.

Karla Kane contributed to this report. She writes for The Almanac's sister paper, The Palo Alto Weekly.

Kate Bradshaw

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