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.

  • Norse settlers brought their home flocks to Iceland in the ninth century. For more than a thousand years, the only chickens in the country were of this robust landrace.
    Photo by Lisa Richards
  • A visual kaleidoscope: Icelandics boast great personalities and display nearly every plumage pattern imaginable.
    Photo by Harvey Ussery
  • Icelandic chicken eggs are white to cream, and on the small side.
    Photo by Harvey Ussery
  • Icelandic chickens are aggressive foragers, seeking out natural foods and visiting the feeder only as a backup.
    Photo by Harvey Ussery
  • The author’s flock forages “debris fields,” which are areas covered with organic residues from homestead operations.
    Photo by Harvey Ussery
  • Icelandics need ample room to range, on ground that’s as biologically diverse as possible.
    Photo by Harvey Ussery
  • Icelandics deliver good egg production, especially in winter.
    Photo by Harvey Ussery
  • Start with Icelandic stock from a breeder committed to ensuring purity of this breed.
    Photo by Harvey Ussery

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.

Backyard Farmer
8/31/2018 8:47:17 PM

Ok chickens that have been way over hyped. Friendly Roosters? Not in my experience. Layers even in winter? Nope. Broody and good mother’s. Sometimes, but not exceptionally so. What they do have is some beautiful variations and colors. If your looking for a unique look in your flock then these are a good choice. Basically, my experience is that Icelandic’s are no better or worse than any other breeds that I have raised, just more expensive.

5/24/2018 2:54:51 PM

I have 2 Icelandic Roosters and currently hatching chicks as I'm typing this. If interested in the future for some hatching eggs please follow me on facebook or instagram my page name is Organic Happy Chicks. My email is also Thank you, Alex

4/17/2018 8:54:37 AM

I have Icelandic hatching eggs. I am located in New Hampshire



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