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Fleeing the Flames

June 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Back to blogging again! My life has been very crazy during the past couple of months. I was offered a new job working as a biologist specializing in birds that required me to move to Fort McMurray, Alberta. The job started in May and my husband and I decided that I would move up first with five of the parrots and Micro the Maltese, while he stayed behind with the rest of the pets to prepare our house for sale.

The five parrots to come with me were Pteri (Blue and Gold Macaw), Mitri (Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo), Ripley (Red-lored Amazon), Chiku (Green-cheeked Conure mix), and Dip (Rose-crowned Conure). Sadly, Peggy, my Jenday Conure (who I named this blog after), had passed away in November, 2015. Otherwise, she would have come with me as well. Dip is a new bird I got in December 2015.

I moved up April 30 and during the evening of May 1, I noticed a huge cloud of smoke coming up from the south of the city. I later found out that a forest fire had started there, and that it had started to spread very quickly.

uhoh

Picture of smoke taken May 1 2016. Fort McMurray.

Most of the city was extremely smoky on May 2 and a few communities in the southern part of the city were ordered to evacuate but I wasn’t affected. On the morning of May 3, everything looked quite clear but the city fire chief noted that this was deceptive, as the smoke from the fire was staying near the ground due to the weather conditions. He warned people that the fire was not under control.

By the afternoon, I could see heavy smoke coming from two different directions, and bits of burned debris (including conifer needles) were falling from the sky. More parts of the city were ordered to evacuate, and I was starting to think that I would have to evacuate as well.

inferno

This did not look good. Picture taken May 3 2016, Fort McMurray.

ash

Ash falling on the windshield of my car.

Unfortunately, my car was very low on gas, and by the time I was able to try to fill it up, gas stations in the area of the city I lived in had run out of gas. Luckily, I was able to get out of town with a co-worker and we were able to take a work truck.

Once the part of town I lived in was ordered to evacuate, I had to gather up my parrots and dog, and decide what to bring with us. I had no idea how long this evacuation would go on or where we would end up. I did have five carriers handy – one for each bird – but Micro would have to leave with just his harness and leash. When packing supplies, the first thing I thought of were the parrots, and I packed bags of parrot pellets, small bowls, several towels, newspaper, and several bottles of water. I also prepared a big Ziploc bag of dog food, which I ended up forgetting. This meant that Micro got to eat a lot of people food during his adventure. For me, I brought some toiletries (toothpaste, soap, etc), socks, underwear, my laptop, and a book. My co-worker picked us up in a truck and we headed out.

Getting out of town took a long time as there are only two roads out of the city – Highway 63 going north or Highway 63 going south. We were in the northern part of the city so we went north.  All of the radio stations in Fort McMurray had stopped broadcasting so we listened to CBC (the national radio station) for updates.

gettingout

Gridlock in Fort McMurray

There is only one hamlet north of Fort McMurray that can be reached by road, which is the First Nations community of Fort MacKay. The town did generously house many evacuees but there was no way it could handle the tens of thousands of people who had to flee north. This left various work lodges as potential evacuee destinations. There are many oil extraction operations north of Fort McMurray and there are a lot of lodges there that house workers at these operations. Some of them are huge and can house a few thousand people.

Numerous work lodges opened their doors to evacuees and a lot of the larger oil operations sent workers home to make room for evacuees. After several hours of driving north, we saw a person holding a sign saying that the Shell Albian Sands camp was open and had room for evacuees so we headed there.

It took us about eight hours to arrive at the camp. Under normal circumstances, it takes about 45 minutes to make the same drive. Because of the fuel shortage, some people had to abandon their vehicles at the side of the road. However, the police were patrolling the roads to help people who had run out of fuel. I also saw people heading north riding on ATVs.

jam

Vehicles heading north on Highway 63.

Once we got to the Shell camp, we had to park the truck in a lot and wait in a line outside for a bus to shuttle us to the camp. The parrots were surprisingly calm given the circumstances and they attracted a lot of attention. Pteri in particular generated a lot of interest as she would say “Hi!” to people. I did have to warn people not to put their hands in the bird cages, as all the birds were tired and probably cranky. Micro, however, was happy to have attention and a lot of kids petted him. There were also a lot of other dogs waiting in the line, and even a few cats. As far as I know, all of the lodges taking evacuees were allowing pets of all types.

The shuttle bus arrived and luckily I had a lot of help getting the five birds onto the bus. They had never really ridden on buses before but they were very quiet. Once we arrived, we had to stay in a common area as the camp was saving rooms for people with small children or health problems. We were given a bunch of blankets and pillows by the staff.

I stacked the parrots by a wall and made sure they all had food and water. It was about 2 am by the time I got everyone settled. I also covered Pteri’s cage with a towel as she would screech when she saw people get too close to her cage. Having the towel over her cage seem to calm her down.

I tried sleeping on the floor. Admittedly I did not get much sleep as my dog was, understandably, rather agitated so he whined a lot. He was in a room with other dogs, a few cats, and many stressed and upset people. Many of these people had lost their homes and those who hadn’t were worried that they would. I had to take Micro outside a few times for bathroom breaks. At one point, I tied him to my heavy bag and tried to rest, but he backed out of his harness and wandered around the lodge. Someone found him and called my cell number (which was on Micro’s collar tags).

The next day, we were able to get a little room, which relieved me as I think the parrots were getting a stressed at this point. I was able to give each bird some time out of their cages to stretch their wings. We had a luggage cart they were able to perch on as well. They all seemed quite content once we got into a room. They were fairly quiet, and spent their time napping, preening, or eating.

Mitriperch

Mitri perches and preens on a luggage cart

The birds had enough pellets to eat, but I was able to get them some vegetables and fruit from the cafeteria. Evacuees were able to eat for free at the large cafeteria that is normally used by the workers who stay at the lodge.

We stayed at the lodge for a few days, but then they started to fly people out to either the Calgary or Edmonton airports. People and animals were being flown out at no cost from the oil sands aerodromes. A few of the oil sands mines have their own private aerodromes that they use to fly workers in and out and Shell is one of them. I signed up to fly back to Edmonton. All of my birds except Chiku (whose carrier would fit under the plane set) would have to fly in the cargo part of the plane but I was assured that they would  be safe. I have to admit I was worried about them. I wrote each birds’ name, my name, and my cell phone number somewhere on each carrier.

To get onto a flight, I had to wait in a long line with the birds’ (in their carriers) on a luggage cart. Of course, they attracted a huge amount of attention. Pteri even delighted a group of people by saying “Good Morning” to them. Most of the time, though, I kept her cage covered with a towel, which seemed to reduce her stress levels. The other parrots were surprisingly calm.

parrotcart

The parrots waiting in line for their flight.

We had to take another bus ride to get to the aerodrome but that went smoothly. Micro and Chiku rode in the passenger section of the plane and the other birds went to cargo.

mitridip

Mitri and Dip ride the bus.

All of the birds and Micro were fine after the flight and they got to ride in a taxi to get back to my place in Edmonton. I had a few spare cages there that my husband and I had intended to sell but hadn’t done so yet. The birds had to stay in these cages.

For a little while, I wasn’t really sure if all the things I had moved to Fort McMurray survived the fire. I saw on the news that several homes a couple blocks from my place had burned to the ground. However, I saw on a later report that my place was okay.

I wasn’t able to go back to Fort McMurray until June 3. There was no major damage to my place and I was able to move the five parrots back up there to their bigger cages. I was also able to retain my job up there. Sadly, many other people were not so lucky, as about 2500 homes were destroyed.

I had a place to keep my parrots while I was in Edmonton but not all evacuees had a place for their pets. One local parrot supply store, Meika’s Birdhouse, generously offered to look after parrots belonging to evacuees. There is a news story about this here:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/parrots-unperched-from-fort-mcmurray-find-refuge-in-sherwood-park-1.3581323

I never really thought I would have to evacuate during an emergency. I’m glad I had enough carriers for my birds and that I was able to get them out safely.

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Two Training Tips

August 18, 2011 1 comment

(Note – if you are new to positive reinforcement training, I recommend reading the article on “clicker training parrots” before this one:)

Clicker Training Parrots

Also, while this post starts by focussing on my dogs, the information is relevant to parrot keepers!

Meet Micro, my Maltese:

Micro

I adopted Micro at the Edmonton Humane Society last year. I had recently lost two of my older dogs to cancer (Compy the greyhound and Shayla the American Eskimo) and was left with Pharaoh, who is a golden retriever mix. I didn’t want Pharaoh to be an only dog, so I started to keep my eye out for a small dog that was gentle and calm around birds. I saw Micro’s picture on the humane society website and bolted right down there with my husband, my dog, and my Jenday Conure, Peggy.

Shayla, Pharaoh and Compy

Micro was still available when I got there. Yeah! Maltese tend to be adopted immediately when they show up at shelters around here. I had brought Peggy with me because I wanted to see how Micro would react to a bird. The employee who was helping us out with the adoption had never seen anyone bring in a parrot before, but I really wanted a dog who would be okay with parrots.  I first held Peggy up to Micro when he was behind a window and Micro didn’t react at all. I then walked into Micro’s kennel holding Peggy and again, he did not react to her.  Micro also got along fine with Pharaoh so we applied to adopt him and were approved.

Micro and Pharaoh

Micro is a charming, smart and sweet little dog. I started doing some clicker training with him and he learned fast. He’s also quite athletic for a Maltese and I frequently take him for long walks. Even after a 10 km hike, he still has energy left.

Micro did have one little problem though: he’d get extremely excited if he saw another dog on a walk and he’d start barking like mad. Now, this is not a particularly unusual problem, especially for a toy breed. Micro is not actually aggressive and does not react to other dogs if he’s off leash. Additionally, if on leash, should Micro get to meet a dog he’s barking at, he’ll usually just sniff noses with it and then go on his way.

What to do? I picked up the book, “The Feisty Fido” by Patricia McConnell to get some pointers on dealing with a dog that gets yappy and excited at the site of another dog. The book was helpful and I decided to teach Micro to “watch me” on cue. That way, I could get his attention when another dog came around. Micro already knew “sit” and “down,” so if he saw another dog, I could pull him off the path, get his attention with the “watch me” cue and get him to sit.

I also took the advice in the book to start training Micro in a simple environment with few distractions. Then, I would  gradually add distractions. I first started teaching Micro to “watch me” along with “sit,” “stay,” and “come” in my living room. Then I worked up to teaching Micro with Pharaoh present in the living room. Next came training sessions in the yard with or without Pharaoh, then on a quiet street, and finally, at a park with another dog in the distance.

Everything was going great. Micro would watch me, come, sit and go down in most situations. However, he’d still have a melt down if another dog came close to him.

Now what? I was using some high-quality commercial treats as reinforcers to train my dogs and they worked just fine in most situations. However, if another dog was close (say, within 10 m), Micro just didn’t seem motivated enough to watch me. The other dog was much more interesting!

We did more practise sessions in less distracting situations. I also decided to see if I could find a reinforcer that was more rewarding for Micro. I tried cooked liver. I don’t like dealing with the stuff, but Micro and Pharaoh? They love it. I fried some up and cut it into small pieces and ran the two dogs through some training exercises in the yard. I actually got faster responses using the liver, so I tried some exercises at the park. Again, I got very fast responses from some very focussed dogs. The dogs’ responses to cues were also fast when there were other dogs in the distance.

The big test came and I was pretty confident the dogs would respond to me with another dog nearby. One evening, with another dog passing us on a trail,  I pulled my two dogs aside, asked them to “watch me” and asked them to sit.

It worked! They looked at me, ignored the other dog and sat down. Of course, I rewarded them with a snack of liver bits.

This little story illustrates two principles of good training that apply to many species, so if you are training an animal to give a specific response to a cue, keep the following in mind:

1. When training a new behaviour, start training in an area with no or few distractions, and then gradually increase the number of distractions present.

For example, when teaching a bird to step-up, start in an area the bird is comfortable in and that has few distractions present. Once the bird responds well, try training sessions in a new area that is just a bit different from where the bird first learned to step up. Gradually add distractions and soon, you will have a bird that will step up reliably no matter where he is. Many people will train an animal to respond to a cue in one setting and expect the animal to then respond to the cue in very distracting or stressful situations, such as at a vet’s office. This is a common mistake, because animals who have learned to respond to a cue in one location do not always respond to it in a completely new location. This is why dogs who have learned how to sit during an obedience class may not do so at a busy pet store. Vary your training locations and be patient to ensure that the animal responds to a cue in a variety of situations.

2. If an animal just doesn’t seem motivated or focussed, or if you have hit a training roadblock, try another reinforcer or try to increase the value of your reinforcer.

For example, the commercial treats worked okay with Micro, but the liver worked even better. Real meat tends to be a very powerful reinforcer for dogs and as a bonus, it’s a very healthful treat. Items that often work for training parrots include nuts, dried papaya, sunflower seeds, bits of grape or millet.

There are also things one can do to increase the value of a reinforcer for an animal. If using food, don’t have your the training sessions right after the animal has had breakfast or dinner. A food reinforcer just won’t be as reinforcing for the animal at that time.

Additionally, the specific food that is being used as the reinforcer can also be removed from the animal’s diet except for training sessions. If the animal has access to the food used as a training reward at all times, he may not be as motivated to work to get that food. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, as some birds or dogs may be motivated to work for pellets or kibbles, but frequently, a very tasty but infrequently recieved food will work very well as a reinforcer.

On a final note, some may wonder why I didn’t jerk Micro’s leash, scold him or otherwise punish him for the barking. Many prominent trainers go straight to such techniques in dealing with leash reactive dogs. I do not for several reasons.

First, using leash jerks on a small dog like a Maltese is outright nasty since such dogs are prone to collapsed tracheas.  Secondly, some dogs (especially big dogs with tough necks) actually become desensitized to the leash jerks (or other punishments). Finally, the punishment may make the dog more edgy or nervous on leash, which is not what is wanted. The fallouts of punishment (especially poorly timed ones) can include aggression and stress. Teaching the animal what do to (focus on the owner) can work just as well (actually, even better) than punishing the animal. Finally, the ethical trainer will always use the least punitive approach that gives results.

Happy training!

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