Genetically unique, Icelandic chickens have a rich history dating back over a thousand years. They are still favored by many cold-climate chicken owners today for their independence, hardiness, and egg-laying abilities.
Icelandic chickens are fascinating for many reasons: they came to Iceland with the Vikings, are fierily independent, can withstand cold climates, and regularly lay, even in winter. Icelandic chickens are a small, genetically unique population, easily recognized by their colorful, featherless legs.
Read on to discover nine fascinating facts about Icelandic chickens, including their origins, appearance, and the characteristics that make them so unique and sort after.
Fascinating Facts About Icelandic Chickens
Icelandic chickens are popular among small-scale chicken owners for their robust and self-sufficient natures. They are quite a rare breed of chicken and have a unique history, temperament, and adaptations, which are fascinating to explore.
Icelandic Chickens Arrived With The Vikings
These incredible chickens have a rich and ancient history and have adapted to the cold Icelandic climate over a very long time.
Icelandic chickens were bought to Iceland by Viking invaders between 875 AD and the 10th century. The fascinating history of the origins of Icelandic chickens is revealed in the local translation of their name – which means “chicken of the settlers” or “Viking hen”!
Their origins mean that Icelandic chickens have existed in Iceland for more than a millennium and thus have naturally adapted to living in cold conditions.
Icelandic Chickens Are Genetically Unique
If you think that Icelandic chickens look unique, it is because they are! Icelandic chickens are incredibly genetically unique, with 78% of their genes not shared with other modern chicken breeds.
This genetic uniqueness is a result of the early establishment of Icelandic chicken populations by the Vikings and their relative isolation from other chicken breeds for a long time.
This population isolation led to a natural selection for genes and traits best suited for the environment in which they lived.
Today, Icelandic chicken farmers and breeders are strongly encouraged not to cross-bread Icelandic chickens with other breeds. Officials have imposed this legislation in an effort to maintain the unique genetic stock that pure-bred Icelandic chickens represent.
To support this, breeding organizations have ruled that any cross between Icelandic chickens and other breeds cannot be considered or marketed as an Icelandic chicken.
There Are Four Distinct Lineages Of Icelandic Chicken
While Icelandic chickens as a breed are genetically unique, there also exist several sub-strains of this breed, all of which are also genetically traceable.
There are four different recognized types of Icelandic chicken, which stem from four original family trees. These are called the Sigrid Line, the Hlesey line, the Behl line, and the Husatoftir line.
These lines have been named after the four families on whose farms each type of Icelandic chicken originated. Scientists can genetically trace each line back to these farms and geographically trace them back to the associated regions of Iceland.
Icelandic Chickens Are Remarkably Self-Sufficient
Icelandic chickens are among the most self-sufficient chicken breeds. They forage for themselves and are not suited for coop living, as they become agitated without plenty of space.
They prefer to eat small insects and organic waste to chicken feed and are happiest when scratching around in the yard for tidbits.
As well as fending for themselves in terms of food, Icelandic chickens can protect themselves from predators, as they can fly and fight better than many other chickens.
This self-sufficiency makes Icelandic chickens very low-maintenance and easy to keep – provided that you have the space for them to roam free.
Icelandic Chickens Are Adapted To Living In The Cold
Icelandic chickens have naturally adapted to living in cold conditions after a thousand years of living in chilly Iceland (where temperatures regularly drop below freezing in winter).
This unique history means that Icelandic chickens can tolerate much colder climates than other chicken breeds are comfortable with and, indeed, thrive under these conditions.
This adaptation makes Icelandic chickens particularly popular with individuals in colder climates, most notably those in the northern United States.
Icelandic Chickens Came Back From The Brink Of Extinction
There are currently only about 5000 Icelandic chickens in the world, with 1000 of them living in the United States and the rest in Iceland.
However, small as these numbers seem, they are a significant increase from earlier years when Icelandic chicken numbers dwindled fast.
Around the 1950s, the widespread introduction of commercial-type chickens (which have been selectively bred to produce more eggs) put Icelandic chickens at risk of extinction – and we came very close to losing the Icelandic chicken forever.
Today, the Icelandic whole chicken population is descended from a small group of these birds that breeders and enthusiasts collected and saved in the 1970s.
Careful breeding and strict breeding rules have significantly restored the population numbers since then. However, these efforts are still in place today, as breeders strive to increase the population size while maintaining the original and ancient genetic stock.
Icelandic Chickens Can Fly!
Usually, one doesn’t think of chickens as particularly good fliers or able to fly very high. However, Icelandic chickens are an exception to this rule.
Icelandic chickens are one of the breeds of chicken that can fly the best. They can also fly high, which is evident as the tops of trees and roofs are typically their favorite roosting and perching spots.
This flying ability is partially a result of the Icelandic chicken’s natural independence, which has been naturally selected for – that is, Icelandic chickens need to be able to fly to escape predators, which were a very real threat in the Viking days.
Icelandic Chickens Are Good Layers
Icelandic chickens are kept primarily for their eggs (their meat is typically quite tough due to their outdoor lifestyle). They have selectively adapted for over a thousand years to be good layers despite their naturally bitterly cold environments.
Healthy brooding hens can each lay up to 180 eggs per year, starting from when they are four and a half months old. Most remarkably, they keep up a sound and consistent egg production throughout the year, even in winter.
Icelandic Chickens Have Featherless Legs
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Icelandic chickens is their legs. These are entirely featherless, regardless of which genetic line the chicken belongs to.
Icelandic chickens instead have colorful legs– most commonly yellow, but they may also be grey, white, or even green or blue.
Frequently Asked Questions
Whether you’re considering buying Icelandic chickens yourself or simply curious to know more about these fascinating chickens, we know you have questions!
How Many Years Do Icelandic Chickens Lay Eggs?
Icelandic chickens can start laying eggs young – at just four and a half months. They lay eggs for three to four years until they are four or five years of age.
Are Icelandic Chickens Dual-Purpose?
Icelandic chickens can be dual-purpose poultry; however, they are generally kept for their eggs as their meat may be tough. This is because they are naturally more active than other chicken breeds.
However, when eaten, their meat is flavorful and nutritious.
Icelandic chickens have a rich history – arriving in Iceland in the 9th century, they are genetically unique and have come back from the brink of extinction.
These ancient birds are hardy and self-sufficient and are still valued by owners in both Iceland and the United States for their adaptation to the cold, egg-laying prowess, and ability to defend themselves.