North America’s only native species is the Thick-billed Parrot, a bird whose range once included limited sections of the American Southwest but now no longer includes the United States at all. So why has a poll named the parrot as the animal mascot of the city of San Francisco?
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To understand this story, we have to start sometime in the 1980s. The 1980s is a good starting point, but there have actually been reports of wild parrots in San Francisco as far back as 1911. These reports were sporadic, though, and San Francisco’s status as a parrot habitat was not cemented until a group of Cherry-headed Conures began taking up residence in Telegraph Hill, a hill and neighborhood in the northeastern section of the city.
The growth of San Francisco’s small non-native parrot community was documented and introduced to the wider world with the 2003 indie documentary film, “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” which followed the relationship between these parrots and a homeless street musician named Mark Bittner.
So how did San Francisco come to be home to a flock of parrots which now includes over 220 wild birds? The answer actually remains a mystery, but there is one theory that is considered the most likely. It is almost certain, due to observations that the earliest parrots in the flock were banded and due to their prevalence within the pet trade, that the Telegraph Hill parrot population began with domesticated parrots. Most fans and observers believe that the original flock, which numbered as few as twenty-four individual birds, had escaped from a pet store. This is considered the most likely scenario. In any case, these colorful interlopers have found ways to survive and thrive in an environment which is far outside of the normal range for their species. Many respondents to the animal mascot poll seem to believe that this story fits San Francisco perfectly.
In the first few stages of the polling process, the Telegraph Hill parrots were a distant second to one of San Francisco’s most iconic residents: sea lions. San Francisco’s sea lions arrived in 1989, shortly after the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake. They are native residents of the San Francisco Bay and have since made their home at Pier 39, where they are often seen basking and barking for an eager crowd of tourists.
Initially, the sea lions held a strong lead, but an eleventh hour upset brought a narrow victory to the Telegraph Hill parrots. The competition was fierce. Sea lion supporters often cited their native status as opposed to the parrots which are invasive, if not necessarily harmful. Parrot supporters, though, argued that the loud and colorful transplants better represent San Francisco’s unique character.
Both sides of the animal mascot aisle acknowledge that the vote is a great opportunity to raise awareness for San Francisco’s wildlife and the rich natural landscape of the San Francisco Bay.
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