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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

The First 5 Months Of Raising Icelandic Chickens

Like many others, I sat down that evening to open up my MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine during my one moment of solitude of the day. There were no chores left to be done. There was not a five-year-old tugging on my shirt tail or saying "mommy, mommy, mommy" every five minutes. 

I opened the magazine pages, flipping through it slowly, savoring each quiet second I could muster. And just as I began to relax, there it was. The photo of a beautiful flock of chickens walking through the snow. What a gorgeous photo, I must know what they are.

The by line said "Harvey Ussery", and I was pulled in even more. You see, he was local....very local. And this meant that if for some unknown reason I wanted to get rid of all of my current flock and start a brand new flock with these incredible birds, it would be as easy as pie. Harvey only lives about 35 minutes away from me. You're not a true chicken lover in VA unless you've heard the name "Harvey Ussery". And so, the journey began....

I sat back in my chair and let out a loud sigh. My husband knew that sigh as I looked at him. "What is it now, what on earth are we buying now?!" 

In just a couple of short months, we became the brand new owners of a tiny Icelandic chicken flock in the form of hatching eggs. I was out of my ever loving mind. I was preparing to hatch these chicks as Winter approached. I would need to ensure that I had a heat back up for the incubator if the electric failed. I would need to provide a heat lamp for these chicks until they were fully feathered, in the dead of winter. And even after being fully feathered, I couldn't just randomly take them off of the heat lamp, throw them outside and say "good luck". Good thing I was well prepared.

icelandic chick

In just 19 short days, out popped the cutest chicks you ever did see. In fact, they started pipping on day 18, which was "lockdown day" for the incubator. Saying I was surprised is an understatement. Since then, all of the batches we have hatched in the incubator have hatched on day 19. 

Icelandic chicks are extremely eager to learn, unlike many of the modern chickens we have raised over the years. They are also very eager to dust bath and devour all other knowledge that they can within the first week of hatching. In order to ensure that your new stock is going to grow efficiently into their characteristics, I highly suggest catering to all of their curiosity and needs. Our first batch of chicks very much wanted me to show them how to scratch, drink and bathe. As soon as they saw my hand come into their brooder, they attacked it with love and affection, waiting for food, water, and interaction. It was an incredible experience, watching these young creatures not care about who or what I was, but just wanting someone or something to nurture their curiosity and eager learning.

By week four, they were fully feathered. Completely. In fact, the biggest surprise was walking down into my basement one morning to a tiny little crow. Yes, one of my cockerels was trying his darnedest to crow. He barely succeeded, at which point my husband let out a sigh which I understood immediately! It was time for them to move outside to the outdoor brooder with a heat lamp.

icelandic pullet

4 Month Old Icelandic Pullet pictured above.

Within the first week of being in the outside brooder, I really started to take notice in how different they adjusted to being outdoors. They had ground access where they could scratch around and be happy. They were avid foragers, even at just 4 weeks old. Far better at foraging than my modern birds had been at this age.

They jumped the fence much sooner as well. Their jump and flying distance is incredible at such a young age. And I quickly realized that they would need netting over their mini-run as soon as possible.

I'm not sure our chicks knew how to walk, because they ran everywhere. Everywhere they needed to go was done so in a fast sprint. We took much joy out of watching them grow.

Our Icelandic chickens integrated well into our modern flock (which we will be ridding mostly of after our Icelandics finish maturing). However, I noticed that they do typically stay together in a small flock of their own.

We have seen these chicks grow in the dead of Winter, and now some of the hottest days of Spring. I must say, they thrive more in the Spring weather than the Winter. And I believe many people think that Icelandics are able to thrive in extremely cold temps, but that's not always true. As with any other chicken, they need adequate shelter from the snow and heat. The average temperature in Iceland is 70 degrees. And while it gets cold in Iceland, there are many states in the United States that got well below Iceland temps this Winter. Please keep in mind, if at any time you take on this beautiful landrace fowl, that they are hardy, but they are not immortal. They still need tending to, even though they are extremely self sufficient.

So, What Is an Icelandic Chicken, You Ask?

Icelandic chickens are a new breed on our homestead, but is, in fact, one of the most ancient breeds of chickens in the world. They are considered a landrace fowl, rather than a "breed". This heritage landrace is very unique and extremely rare to find in its purest form.

Icelandic chickens, or Íslenska landnámshænan (Icelandic hen of the settlers), are also known as "Viking Chickens". Icelandic chickens were introduced by Norse settlers (Vikings) in the 9th century. Icelandic chickens (in their purest form) are extremely rare. In fact, by the 1950s, they were almost completely extinct due to the modernization of chickens, hatcheries, and the push for "bigger chickens and bigger eggs". Icelandic chickens were the only chicken on Iceland for over ten centuries due to their hardiness and ability to be highly self-sufficient. They thrived on their own, and by natural process of "survival of the fittest", they became extremely resilient. There are now only a few thousand in the USA, but it is steadily growing with the sudden influx of attention they have received through articles such as the one stated in this post. This is also why so many of us breeders become scared whenever there are 100 people knocking on our door for eggs and chicks -- we truly do have to go through a process of weeding through those who we think will conserve the breed, and those who just want to fiddle with them and "make money" off of their sudden popularity.

In a 2004 study of blood samples from the Icelandic chicken, it revealed that 78 percent of the DNA of the Icelandic chicken was unique and could not be found in another chicken breed, anywhere. This is why it is so important to never mix their DNA with another chicken breed to get "mixed" chicks. The outcome would not necessarily be the best, and it is definitely against the preservation of their kind.

Iceland allows little importation of animals, and any livestock that has left generally cannot come back. This is why this breed has been preserved there for so long — little influence of disease or the outside modern world. In other words, nature has done its own process of elimination, and "only the strong" have survived these past few thousand years. This is why Icelandics are so self-sufficient and hardy.

Here is an excellent article about Icelandic chickens. We truly are raising them here because we are absolutely in love with their history and efficiency. I take so much pride in knowing that we can conserve a breed that is part of ancient history!

Our current stock came from Harvey Ussery, here in Virginia. Mr. Ussery takes great care in specifically tagging and mating different clans of chickens within his flock to ensure that none of them are closely related. Mr. Ussery's lines come from 4 different imported blood lines. While he does not separate them out into separate imported blood lines, he does do clan mating (as we will be doing) to ensure that his flocks are not overly inbred.

Harvey Ussery also wrote an incredibly informative article for MOTHER EARTH NEWS about this gorgeous breed, which I would highly suggest reading before deciding if this breed is for you or not.

Stay tuned for another blog whenever our pullets begin laying and mating.

Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. Her and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise Icelandic Chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks, and more!  For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead.

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