Icelandic Chickens: A Heritage Chicken Breed for Modern Homesteads

Try Icelandic chickens, a colorful, self-reliant heritage chicken breed, to enjoy flavorful meat and excellent egg production.

| October/November 2014

Update: Because of limited supply and high demand, suppliers of Icelandic eggs and chickens are nearly sold out for 2015 and possibly through 2016. —MOTHER, February 2015

In addition to being fun, keeping a home flock of chickens makes us less dependent on purchased food. But how much does our flock contribute to food independence if it is itself dependent on purchased feed — and on purchases of replacement chicks? Manufactured feeds and mail-order chicks scarcely fit earlier models for sustainable home flocks, which were historically managed as scavengers of free natural feeds, and in which replacement birds were the spontaneous gift of “broodiness,” or a mother hen’s instinct to hatch eggs — a trait that has been deliberately bred out of modern breeds.

I’m fortunate to have had a living example of a traditional model: My grandmother’s rugged flock fed themselves almost entirely by ranging over her 50-acre farm. From time to time a hen would disappear, only to show up three weeks later with a clutch of chicks in tow. Granny kept that self-feeding, self-replicating flock going for decades. Every egg, every piece of fried chicken, and every serving of chicken and dumplings came to her table without cost.

I strive to emulate my grandmother’s flock management: I give my chickens as much range to forage as possible while getting their help with homestead chores — cover-crop tilling, making compost and controlling insects — as benefits incidental to their quest for live, wild foods. I also prefer hatching chicks under my own mother hens, rather than purchasing them from elsewhere or using an incubator. When I learned the fascinating history of Icelandic chickens, I wondered whether they might be the best choice for my ideal flock.

The History of Icelandic Chickens

Icelandic chickens (or “Icies”) originated with the settlement of Iceland in the ninth century by the Norse, who brought their farmstead chickens with them. In Iceland these birds are known as Íslenska landnámshænan, or “Icelandic chicken of the settlers.” Over the centuries, farmers selected birds capable of feeding themselves, and hens with reliable mothering skills. The result was a landrace of active, naturally healthy fowl adapted to harsh conditions. (A landrace is a group of domesticated stock adapted to local conditions and selected for useful traits rather than for conformation to specific breed standards, such as color, pattern or comb style.) Icelandics are on the small side (mature cocks weigh 4-1⁄2 to 5-1⁄2 pounds; hens, 3 to 3-1⁄2 pounds) but have good egg production, especially in winter.

For more than a thousand years, the only chickens in Iceland were of this robust landrace. But in the 1930s, strains of Leghorns were imported to boost commercial egg and meat production. Inevitably, those chickens were crossed with some of the natives, and the pure landrace was in danger of being lost. Efforts to conserve the native population began in the 1970s. The success of these efforts was followed by importation of these genetically unique birds into other countries, including the United States.

10/22/2014 10:01:57 AM

Some information on where to find breeders would be helpful.

10/7/2014 3:47:39 PM

I had a beautiful healthy 5 year old rose-combed mixed breed gray hen that had a mysterious demise. I'd like help in figuring out what happened. She free-ranges in the yard and on the trails near my yard. I came home one evening and she was not in her coop along with her 10 other buddies. As usual I went looking for her. In less than 5 minutes after looking in all the usual spots, I found her alive and nestled between an empty hay shed and a bale of straw. She was parked face-in and her back was competely plucked of feathers in a small patch about the size of a lemon. There was no blood, only skin irritation from the plucking and a pile of the pulled feathers right on the ground next to her. I picked her up and took her home. After examination I found no bites, wounds, or obvious signs of injuries, no saliva on her feathers, nothing. She appeared ok. I put her in the coop adjoining her usual coop to allow her some peace and quiet and in the morning I found that she was dead. Very heartbreaking. Can anyone tell me what they think may have happened to my sweet Gilda?

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