Icelandic chickens originated with Icelandic settlements in the tenth century by the Norse, who brought their farmstead chickens with them. In Iceland, these chickens are known as Íslenska landnámshænan or “Icelandic chicken of the settlers.”
Over the centuries, selection favored breeders capable of feeding themselves on Icelandic smallholdings and hens with reliable mothering skills. The result was a landrace of active, naturally healthy fowl adapted to harsh conditions with good egg production, even in winter. Icelandics are on the smaller side, with mature cocks weighing 4.5 to 5.25 pounds and hens 3 to 3.5 pounds.
The term “landrace” means that these chickens were selected all over Iceland for the same suite of utilitarian traits, but not to conform to a specific breed standard. Thus a flock of Icelandics is a visual kaleidoscope, showing every feather color and pattern, both single and rose comb styles, and various shank colors. Some birds, both hens and cocks, sport crests of feathers on the head, while others don’t. However, true Icelandics will not show any feathering on the leg, nor a “muff” or “beard” or ear tufts. Face patches range from white to a light lemon-yellow but are never red.
For a thousand years, the only chickens in Iceland were this robust landrace. However, importations of more commercial chicken strains into Iceland in the 1930s led to crossing with the native stock. This threatened the Icelandics survival as a pure landrace. Successful efforts in Iceland in the 1970s to conserve pure birds were followed by their importation into other countries, including the United States.
Icelandics have much to offer as a more self-sufficient homestead flock. While not suitable for confinement, if given range to roam — whether on pasture or in woods — they’re highly skilled at both foraging much of their own feed and evading predators. Piles of decomposing vegetation and other organic refuse are also popular places to forage, with a payoff of free natural feeds for the flock and compost for the garden. In their native land, they’re also called Haughænsni or “pile chickens” because of their preference for such debris heaps.
Though egg production doesn’t match that of egg-laying champs such as Leghorns, Minorcas, and Rhode Island Reds, it’s good for a feed-thrifty laying flock, and hens maintain production well in winter. Eggs are white to cream and small – though surprisingly large for such small hens – averaging just below 1.75 ounces.
Carcass size of cull birds is small, not surprising in a type developed as Icelandics were to forage most of their own feed. However, the flesh is fine-grained and remarkably flavorful; and old, cull layers yield superb broth as well.
An interesting homestead trait is retention of “broodiness,” the instinct to incubate a clutch of eggs and nurture the growing chicks. Not all Icie hens in a flock will “go broody,” but enough will to furnish all replacement chicks needed.
Icelandics are still relatively unknown in the U.S. and aren’t yet offered by commercial hatcheries. A Facebook group dedicated to the conservation of pure Icelandics may be the best place to find sources of hatching eggs, chicks, or started birds.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.