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Breed Facts

Status:
Threatened

Use:
Eggs, Meat

Egg Color:
White to tinted or light beige

Egg Size:
Large

Mature Weight:
3 – 5 lbs

Temperament:
Widely variable

Characteristics:
Very hardy, active forager

Icelandic Chicken

Icelandic chickens originated with the settlement of Iceland in the tenth century by the Norse, who brought their farmstead chickens with them. (In Iceland they 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, on the small side (mature cocks weigh 4½ to 5¼ pounds; hens, 3 to 3½ pounds), with good egg production, even in winter.

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 do not. (True Icelandics will not, however, show any feathering on the leg, nor a “muff” or “beard” or ear tufts. Face patches range from white to light lemon yellow, but are never red.)

For a thousand years, the only chickens in Iceland were of this robust landrace. Importations of more commercial strains of chickens into Iceland in the 1930s, however, led to crossing onto the native stock, threatening its survival as a pure landrace. Successful efforts in Iceland in the 1970s to conserve pure Icelandics 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 management systems, if given range to roam—whether on pasture or in woods—they are highly skilled at both foraging much of their own feed and evading predators. Piles of decomposing vegetation and other organic refuse are also favorite places to forage, with a payoff of free natural feeds for the flock and compost for the garden. (In their native land they are 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 is very good for such 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 grade Medium (1.75 ounce).

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 unusually 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 United States, and are not 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: https://www.facebook.com/groups/icelandicchickens

For more information, see “Icelandic Chickens: My Ideal Homestead Flock” at http://themodernhomestead.us/article/Icelandic+Chickens.html (originally published in the Oct/Nov 2014 issue of Mother Earth News).

Icelandic Varieties Collage 1

Icelandic Varieties Collage 2


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