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Keeping Your Flock Healthy and Happy Through the Winter

by Dr. Mandy Tolson, NCDA&CS veterinarian

Chickens in the snow

As we move into colder days, we want to continue to keep our birds happy and healthy. Most domestic breeds of chickens and ducks are cold tolerant. This does not necessarily mean they like the weather, but they are built to be able to keep warm and healthy, with a little bit of help from us. Generally, hot weather is more a threat to backyard poultry than cold weather.

Some breeds are more tolerant than others but, in general, birds that remain dry and well feathered are capable of staying warm during cold weather. Keeping fresh water available for your birds is key. Through the winter months it can be difficult to keep water from freezing. It is essential to provide fresh, non-frozen water to your birds daily. Also, birds generally will adjust their feed intake in order to provide additional heat through metabolism. So, free feeding may be preferred if possible, as long as you keep it away from waterfowl to prevent introduction of avian influenza. Also, additional feed may be needed if your birds normally rely on foraging and snow is keeping them from continuing to do this.

With adequate water and food the birds will be able to optimally keep themselves warm through their basic metabolic processes. Also, keeping their housing dry and free of drafts is essential. When a bird gets wet it takes away a lot of the insulation found in their dry feathers. Providing wind breaks in their coop and adequate roosting space will give them the opportunity to get away from snow, ice and water. Also, fresh straw or shavings can provide additional insulation for them to stay warm. They will huddle together in cold weather which also provides great heat and insulation.

If your birds are facing extreme cold it may be beneficial to apply petroleum jelly to their combs and wattles to prevent frost bite. This may provide an additional barrier for these extremities. Your bird may quickly groom this away though so, keeping them out of the wind and water is the best practice to prevent frost bite. It is important for your birds to stay as active as possible. This helps them stay warm, healthy and combats boredom. Treats and toys can help to keep them engaged during rough weather.

One question that many people have is whether to put a heater in their coop or a water heater in their water source. Again, most birds do not need an additional heat source if they are given appropriate shelter options but if a heater is used great care should be used to avoid fire or injury to your birds. Birds are always curious about new things in their environment and will likely play with cords and other things that could cause injury. Fires are always a risk with heaters in a dry, dusty environment. So, please use these with great caution. 

Also, sweaters seem to be a popular option to keep birds warm. Though these are adorable and quite tempting, they can lead to injury. Sweaters will also prevent the birds from grooming. All birds need to groom daily to stay healthy and happy. 

Obviously, water fowl do not need to be kept from water and can remain dry if they can properly groom. These birds do need to be provided with a safe, dry place to get out of the weather as well. 

I hope these tips help you and your birds have a happy, healthy and safe winter!

An Update on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza to the North Carolina Backyard Poultry Owners

The United States was recently declared to be free of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, clearing trade restrictions placed on our country earlier this year. However, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler says it's too soon to say that we are in the clear.

"While it's true that the U.S. is clear from the disease, we are still vulnerable," Troxler said. "The virus appeared last year during the coldest months, so we caution everyone to continue their biosecurity measures through at least the spring."

The unseasonably warm weather we've experienced on the East Coast is also thought to have delayed the migration of some waterfowl, which could prolong the migration season.

Last week, USDA announced that "Eurasian H5 avian influenza was found in genetic material collected from a wild duck, but testing was unable to determine the exact strain of the viruses or whether they were high pathogenic or low pathogenic. This recent finding of Eurasian H5 was in a wild, hunter-harvested mallard duck in Morrow County, Oregon in November. No HPAI has been identified in any commercial or backyard poultry since June 17, 2015."

It is clear that strict biosecurity should remain in place on a day-to-day basis, as there are many viruses that can affect poultry. This is the season for many infectious respiratory diseases. Maintaining biosecurity, especially separating chickens from waterfowl, can help to prevent the introduction of many contagious viruses.

"We will continue to watch this situation and we'll review the measures we have in place," Troxler added.

Help spread the word!

Please share this newsletter with anyone who works with poultry or their suppliers. Download a poster for your place of business. Or share the website with a fellow enthusiast.

Tis the season for upper respiratory problems - Infectious laryngotracheitis

One of the infectious diseases commonly found in backyard and commercial flocks this time of year is Infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT), an acute, highly contagious, herpesvirus infection of chickens and pheasants. It is not transmitable to humans.

In the most severe form, gasping, coughing, rattling and extension of the neck during breathing are seen 5 to 12 days after natural exposure. Reduced productivity is a varying factor in laying flocks. Affected birds stop eating and become inactive. The mouth and beak may be bloodstained from the tracheal secretions. Mortality varies but may reach 50 percent in adults and is usually due to the blocking of the trachea due to hemorrhage or secretions. Signs usually subside after about two weeks, although some birds may show signs for longer periods. Weaker strains of the virus produce little or no mortality with mild respiratory signs and a slight decrease in egg production.

After recovery, birds remain carriers for life and become a source of infection for susceptible birds. The latent virus can be reactivated under stressful conditions. Infection also may be spread mechanically, such as contaminated crates. (From the Merck Veterinary Manual)

You can help protect your flock by using the same biosecurity practices that you are using to prevent HPAI, such as having dedicated boots and equipment for you poultry coops.
USDA-APHIS 6 ways to prevent poultry diseases (PDF English & Spanish)

Follow NCAgriculture:

Informational posters:

NCDA&CS biosecurity poster for feed stores & bird shows (PDF)

USDA-APHIS Biosecurity guide for poultry and bird owners (PDF)

USDA-APHIS 6 ways to prevent poultry diseases (PDF English & Spanish)

USDA: What to expect if you suspect HPAI (PDF)

HPAI: A Guide To Help You Understand the Response Process (PDF)


We've had almost 3,500 small/backyard flocks owners register with the State Veterinarians' office since Aug. 1.

This will faciliate getting information to all flock owners in case HPAI is introduced to North Carolina.

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Steve Troxler, Commissioner of Agriculture

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