The Icelandic chicken is a rare landrace bird that originated in Iceland. Landrace chickens do not conform to breed standards but are bred to withstand local conditions and display traits such as foraging and evading predators. Icelandic chickens are a small breed skilled at foraging in pastures and forests. Most chicken farmers raise the birds for their eggs, but the roosters are also butchered for their meat. There are only a few thousand Icelandic chickens left in Iceland, and some homesteaders in the United States use the breed, but their population status remains threatened.
Quick Facts about Icelandic Chickens
|Breed Name:||Icelandic Chicken|
|Place of Origin:||Iceland|
|Rooster (Male) Size:||4.5-5.25 pounds|
|Hen (Female) Size:||3-3.5 pounds|
|Color:||All plumage colors, red faces|
|Climate Tolerance:||Cold climates|
|Winter season:||Lays more than other breeds|
Icelandic Chicken Origins
In the latter half of the 9th century, Norse settlers arrived in Iceland with their livestock. The wild Nordic chickens could tolerate the frigid climate, and they eventually became the dominant chicken on the island after several hundred years of breeding and selection methods. In the 1930s, Leghorn chickens were imported to Iceland and crossbred with native Icelandic birds to increase meat production. Icelandic birds were close to extinction in the late 1950s, but a group of concerned breeders helped increase their numbers in the 1970s. The chickens were exported to several other countries like the United States to increase the population.
Icelandic Chicken Characteristics
Unlike heavier breeds that are incapable of flight, Icelandic chickens are acrobatic birds that can fly away when they’re frightened. Short fences are not an obstacle for the small bird, and they’re known to leap over fences without much effort. They’re free-range creatures that need plenty of land to explore for food, and they’re not suitable for farmers or commercial operations that confine their chickens.
In the United States, Icelandic chickens are becoming more prevalent on homestead farms because the birds are practically self-sustaining. They forage for their meals and only require protection from predators at night. In northern climates that experience subzero winters, the Icelandic bird is right at home. Their egg production is not as high as some of the commercial layers, such as the Leghorn, but they can lay eggs in winter and usually produce around 180 eggs a year. Landrace chickens have several advantages over their more popular rivals. Compared to commercial breeds that follow rigid standards, Icelandic chickens are more genetically diverse. After centuries of natural selection and limited human interference, the Iceland breed developed into a hardy forager capable of surviving in a harsh landscape. Icelandic hens are famous for their brooding skills, and small farmers do not need an incubator when raising Icelandic chicks.
Icelandic chickens are primarily used for egg production by small farmers, but their meat is considered more flavorful than commercial offerings, and some farmers slaughter their roosters for meat. For families that experience long winters, Icelandic birds are invaluable for providing medium-sized eggs every month. Since they forage for insects, decaying material, seeds, and other organic goodies, they do not require commercial feed. As a farmer or breeder, you can lower your costs with Icelandic birds because the chicks can be hatched without incubators or human assistance.
Appearance & Varieties
Landrace chicken, like the Icelandic, are bred for specific characteristics rather than appearance. They can be black, speckled, brown, white, and numerous other color combinations. Their patterns are also varied, and some hens and roosters have crests of feathers on their heads while others do not. They all have red faces, white earlobes, and lay only white or cream-colored eggs. Most Icelandic birds have a single comb, but others have other styles like the buttercup comb. All purebred Icelandic chickens have featherless legs, and breeders can single out mixed breeds when they inspect the legs.
The current flocks of free-range Icelandics can be traced back to the four lines developed by chicken breeders in Iceland. The four types of Icelandic chicken are the Hlesey line, Behl line, Husatoftir line, and the Sigrid line. The lines have genetic differences, but the birds from each line typically look the same. They all have different colors and features. Since the gene pool of Icelandic chicken is limited, reputable breeders strive to keep the breeding stock diverse and minimize inbreeding.
There are only a few thousand, possibly fewer than 5,000, Icelandic chickens living in Iceland. In the United States, there are small numbers of Icelandic chickens used by homesteaders and small farmers, but the species has not proliferated enough to lift it out of endangered status. However, there are signs that Icelandics are becoming more accepted by environmentally-conscious farmers who prefer heritage chicken rather than commercial varieties. The recent “heritage craze” among homesteaders has led to a greater acceptance of free-range animals that are healthier and harder than mass-produced breeds.
Are Icelandic Chickens Good for Small-Scale Farming?
Icelandic chickens are remarkable creatures that can survive on a wild, varied diet and raise their young without assistance. They’re ideal for small-scale farmers who have access to plenty of land for foraging. They need a chicken coop for protection at night, but they can roam around in the day without supervision. Because they’re Viking birds, they do not react well to high temperatures and must be provided shelter in hotter regions. They’re not lap chickens, but they’re docile towards humans and often grow fond of their owners. With an impressive lifespan, the Icelandic chicken can entertain you and provide plentiful eggs for several years.
Featured Image Credit: Critterbiz, Shutterstock