8 Peculiar Facts About the Icelandic Chicken

Image of Icelandic chickens in a farm setting

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The Icelandic chicken is a hearty, utilitarian breed that is ideal for homesteaders with lots of diverse land and plenty of room. Known as a landrace fowl, Icelandic chickens have been bred and developed for centuries on the Nordic island. Due to the geographic isolation and relatively small area of land, breeders were able to select chickens with the best, most resilient traits to carry on the genes. The result was a breed of chicken capable of adapting to cold temperatures, with good general health, and mild temperament.

In recent years, they've grown in popularity in the United States, but these chickens have been native to Iceland since the 9th century. It is believed they were first brought by Norse tribes who settled throughout the island.

These chickens do not have any one particular look and vary in color, size, comb style, and pattern. However, one feature that identifies them is their featherless legs. They are well-known as good layers and foragers and can live for up to 15 years in a secure and sheltered coop. Their low-maintenance temperament makes them good for beginner farmers. Since they are basically self-sufficient, they require little care and are considered easy to maintain. Compared to other breeds, Icelandic chickens are slightly larger in size and weigh in at about 3 pounds.

Here are eight intriguing facts you should know if you're considering adding Icelandic chickens to your coop.

1. Icelandic Chickens Are Excellent Foragers

Roosters and chickens in the green grass of the mountains
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Part of the reason these chickens are so popular is because they do quite well searching for food on their own. They love to venture out in open fields, pastures, and woodlands to find their meals. For a budget-minded farmer, this can be quite a savings in food expenses. Icelandic chickens will roam all over and find plenty of insects, worms, and moths to eat from compost piles, leaves, and dense shrubbery. In winter months, they may require more supplemental nutrients in order to get necessary vitamins and minerals, but otherwise they manage to feed themselves without much trouble.

2. They've Been in Iceland Since the 9th Century

According to historical records, Norse tribes or Vikings first brought these chickens to Iceland back in the 9th and 10th centuries. It's believed that these chickens were chosen for their adaptability and versatility to the environment. They were also a very good source of meat and eggs for the early settlers.

Icelandic chickens remained relatively isolated on the island until around the 1930s, when other breeds of commercial chickens began to be imported. Parasites and diseases were introduced, which threatened the "pure" line of true Icelandic chickens, so strict laws were put in place to protect the chickens.

3. They Can Lay Up to 180 Eggs per Year

On average, a healthy, brooding hen can lay anywhere from 100 to 180 eggs each year. That's almost 15 eggs per month. For comparison, a white leghorn chicken or Rhode Island red can lay nearly double, up to 280 annually. Icelandic chicken eggs are white or tan in color and medium to large in size. Depending on environmental factors, hens can start laying eggs as early as four months old.

Aside from taking a break to molt, or drop their feathers, they will lay eggs year-round. In general, the rule is one rooster for 10 hens, but that can depend on personality, aggressiveness, and how long the flock has lived together. When it comes to Icelandic roosters, many of the undesirable qualities, like fighting and aggression, both toward other chickens and humans, have been filtered out. Though not typically raised for their meat, Icelandic chicken meat is nutritious and full of flavor.

4. There Are Four Different Types of Icelandic Chicken

Group of Icelandic chickens roaming

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Today there are four distinct "lines" in existence. They all fall under the general name of Icelandic chicken but came from separate flocks or farms around the island, and their lineage can be traced. Also, because of the years of isolation in one gene pool, they carry many genes that are no longer evident in modern breeds.

The four types are known as the Sigrid line, the Behl line, the Hlesey line, and the Husatoftir line. The names originate from the families that owned the farms and developed the specific lineage. Because Icelandic chickens vary so widely in physical appearance, there is no specific look or coloring associated with these lines. However, one shared agreement across all breeders is that Icelandic chickens should not have feathered legs.

5. Icelandic Chickens Go by Many Names

These chickens have several different nicknames. In Iceland, the translation of their name from Icelandic meant "chickens of the settlers," "settlement chicken," or "Viking hen." In the United States, they are generally referred to as "Icies" or "pile hens" because of their affinity for climbing. Icelandic chickens will often hang out atop piles of compost, vegetation, and even manure to roost and search for bugs.

Another term often used interchangeably is a "landrace" chicken. This refers to a chicken that was selected and bred over a period of many years for its most desirable traits to create a better, hardier breed. A landrace is not specifically unique to Iceland, as there are chickens of this kind in places like Denmark and Finland as well.

6. They Are Very Good Flyers

Icelandic hen chicken
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Icelandic chickens love to fly and they're very good at it. In fact, they'll often be seen perched on a roof or barn, high above their coop. This is yet another trait that makes them great for life on a free-range farm, as it provides them with a tool to defend themselves from predators. In a rural area, this can be anything from coyotes and large birds to raccoons and foxes. However, these chickens are very alert, observant, and move quickly if they sense danger. At night, they still require the safety of a secure and protective shelter, but during daylight hours they are often found wandering and roaming freely. This is especially true for young chickens who are still vulnerable and weak.

Icelandic chickens don't do very well in facilities that are designed to confine or keep them from venturing outdoors on their own. They will definitely be able to hop a fence or escape from an enclosure if intentionally kept from their natural inclination to wander.

7. They Can Withstand Cold Temperatures

With centuries of harsh Icelandic weather in their blood, these chickens have grown to adapt to most kinds of inclement weather with relatively no issues. They have a cold-hardy nature and do well in all kinds of climates, though they do prefer cooler temperatures. Not only do they survive well but they thrive and flourish. They will remain outdoors, foraging and roaming, and continue to lay eggs.

They aren't completely immune to frigid, freezing temperatures, but as long as they have a warm, covered shelter to hide in if necessary, they will do well through winter months. They also are used to low sun, low light environments, so they don't necessarily require heat lamps or supplementary lighting, like many other breeds of chickens do. On the other hand, if temperatures soar into the hotter numbers, they'll need a place to cool off and escape the heat.

8. There Are Only About 5,000 Icelandic Chickens in the World

While the majority of Icelandic chicken flocks are still in Iceland, about 1,000 birds can now be found in the United States. These birds are so rare that the Livestock Conservancy considers them to be of Threatened status and is working to restore declining populations.

Due to strict import regulations and to ensure these heritage pools stay free of health concerns or illnesses, once a chicken (or any animal) leaves Iceland it is never allowed back. At one point, years ago, Icelandic chickens were at a critical level of risk of extinction and breeders banded together to heighten conservation efforts. Now, there is more education and awareness surrounding this breed and populations are rising once again, especially in the United States. Thanks to the multitude of online groups and educational resources available, farmers who are new to this breed are getting the necessary information to raise healthy, prosperous flocks.