Jake the parrot doesn’t talk a lot.
People say that he can say “hello,” “here kitty, kitty, kitty” and “step up,” and laugh back if you laugh, but when I met him I was just a stranger staring him right in the face and he didn’t quite know what to make of me.
But Jake, who lives in a fancy cage full of bird toys at the Kelley House on Culbertson Street, is a rare bird.
It helps if you understand the Kelley House. Located in an out-of-the-way spot behind Rockhill Park, it calls itself a modified therapeutic community, where people who have had run-ins with the law, substance abuse and mental health issues learn to restructure their lives.
The program offered there tries to help residents overcome impulsive behavior and take medications if they need them, and once they have finished the program they enter what is known as aftercare. They go home, but they still have to return to the center a few times a week to handle responsibilities assigned to them.
Residents have a woodshop where they make furniture, birdhouses and the like. Some garden. Some cook. Everyone has a job to do.
When Jake arrived a few months ago, he was what you could call a lonely bird. Parrots are social animals and need attention. The woman who owned him, though, couldn’t give the bird all the attention it needed, so she thought giving the bird to the Kelley House would be good for him.
What no one realized was that the bird would give Jeff Collins, a resident in the program, a whole new purpose and structure in his life.
Standing next to the cage and entertaining the parrot, Collins explains that birds need to be loved. When they get excited, Collins said, “They don’t know what to do with their emotions, so they bite.”
And when a bird screeches, it’s actually a cry for help, Collins said.
Birds bond by sight and sound, Collins said, so he spent weeks slowly cozying up to the bird. At first, Jake would bite him, even drawing blood, but Collins was patient.
He gradually got to know the bird and even taught it to talk. For Thanksgiving, for example, he taught it to say, “gobble gobble.”
Eventually, the staff at the Kelley House decided Collins’ job would be to take care of the bird, feeding it, cleaning its cage every day and teaching others about the bird.
The bird, Collins said, has provided him with a degree of purpose.
Today Collins has completed the residential part of the program at the Kelley House and moved on to aftercare.
He has his own place, but he arrives every day at 8 a.m. and cares for the bird. It’s helped him create a routine and introduce a little structure to his life, he said.
The people who run the Kelley House now hope Collins can come back to the house as a trainer, teaching others about birds, what they eat, what they can’t eat, and so on.
The surprising part of all of this, no one could have found a better candidate to take care of a bird.
Collins, it turns out, has been raising birds since he was a kid living in the country.
He would find baby pigeons, called squabs and learned to fill their craws with seeds and water, using a mustard bottle.
He raised pigeons called muff tumblers and rollers, and even nursed a red-tailed hawk back to health after it was hit by a car.
It appears Jake has done his job well, too, whether he knows it or not.