Icelandic chickens are an unbelievably hardy land race. Islandic chickens originally came from the Mediterranean area. They are light chickens and lay white or off white eggs. They forage extremely well, and are good mothers. They were brought to Iceland by the Vikings in the 9th century AD and were found on most farms for centuries. One of their Icelandic names — Íslenska landnámshænan — means “Icelandic hen of the settlers.” The Icelandic breed nearly went extinct by the 1950s. All the birds now existing (about 3,000 – max 5000 ) are descended from a very small group of fowl saved in the 1970s. The Icelandic chicken is genetically significantly different from other modern chicken breeds. According to an interview with the former president of the Icelandic preservation association (Júlíus Baldursson), a 2004 study of blood samples from the Icelandic chicken, done in Britain, revealed that 78% of the DNA of the Icelandic chicken was unique and could not be found in any other chicken breeds in the world.
Imports into the USA: Icelandic chicken lines in the USA are named after their importers and are referred to as the Behl line, Sigrid’s line and Vala’s line. They are from five imports representing five preservation farms in Iceland. The Behl line birds came from
Kolsholt farm, Sigrid’s line from Steinum II and Syðstu Fossum farms
and Vala’s lines are from Hlésey and Húsatóftir farms.
Vala Andrésdóttir Withrow The landrace has been in Iceland since the Vikings brought them there 1100 years ago. Other chicken breeds have been imported into Iceland since the 1930’s and some farmers began either switching to those breeds or mixing them with their landrace stock so that is why in the 1970’s a scientist (Dr. Aðalsteinsson) at the Agricultural University of Iceland collected birds and hatching eggs from some of the farms that still had pure landrace birds and that foundation flock (which is no longer at the University) is referred to as the RALA flock and is for example what Sigrid and Hlésey birds are made up of. Húsatóftir and Kolstaðir (where Behl got his birds from) are other farms considered by the Breeders and Owners Association to have pure landrace birds. Those are the four imports into the US. So, all of the imports so far to the USA have been pure landrace birds from farms known to keep ONLY pure landrace birds so it does not matter if you keep one of the lines or mix the lines together. As long as you stick to those import lines you can rest assured those birds are “Icelandic chickens” and crossed Icelandic lines are by no measure inferior–in fact, they might benefit from the diversity (although this landrace has a high degree of diversity still in it–one of the benefits of an unbred landrace–and therefore tolerant to long periods of line breeding).
I was the one that posted a map showing the distance between two of the farms that are considered to have pure birds but the birds look quite different because those two farms are very very far apart and the terrain between them is not so easily crossed, especially before modern transport, so it makes sense that those birds are “same but different”. It is unlikely those two farms were swapping roosters, but it is reported that that was a known practice between neighbors, although we have no idea how common or widespread that was. Swapping genetic material between farms has become much more common in the past few years so no doubt the birds are largely more homogeneous now than perhaps they were in the past.
David Grote Excellent Vala. I’m not sure how the importers of the lines feel, but it has seemed to me that if one wanted to maintain “pure” lines but needed or wanted some new genetics that the Húsatóftir and Kolstaðir birds (Lyle and Vala’s lines) would be great to out cross to each other and Sigrid’s and Hlésey birds, both steming form the RALA flock, would also be great to outcross with each other and could be done without changing the individuale characteristics of each of the lines. Just something to ponder.
Sandhill Preservation Islandic chickens are from the Behl line as of 2014. Not recommened by breeders because of risk of accidental contamination, even from Sandhill.
Fray feathers – can occur in any chicken breed – inbred and should not be bred.
Lyle Behl: Fray has never been observed in the 2003 flock here at Behl Farm.
Therefore it was necessary to contact several individuals who had
obtained stock from me and still had that line. Interestingly several
of those individuals had never encountered the trait. However there
were some who had observed it in their flocks and those I asked to
tell me about their experiences with it. One was not aware of what
the condition was, but had culled the birds with frayed feathers.
Another had not culled, but did not use those birds for breeding.
Basically the responses were that this fray condition was not seen as
much of a problem, but more as a distinctive, but uncommon, trait
observed in a rare breed. Rare breeds, like Icelandics, are few in
number, have a limited gene pool and therefore present an opportunity
for recessive traits to surface. Additionally, none of the responders
planned to eliminate the 2003 line from their breeding programs. Most
felt it was something to watch for and cull if it shows up just
like any other undesirable trait.
Feathered Shanks in Islandic chickens:
Even tho the Icelandics are a land race and show a lot of variation, there are still standards that we must adhere to. – no feathered shanks.
Vala Andrésdóttir Withrow Yes the leg feathers came from later imports of foreign breeds. Leg feathers are Asian and simply cannot be part of the original Icelandic genome (it was originally a Mediterranean chicken)–but unfortunately some breeders in Iceland mixed in leg feathering at some point and it has contaminated a portion of the Icelandic gene pool. However, we know that the preservation flock created in the 1970s (the RALA group assembled by Dr. Aðalsteinsson at the Agricultural University of Iceland) was clean legged and those were birds from many of the oldest and purest sources in Iceland. A committee was formed by the preservation society in Iceland to look specifically into the leg feathering issue and they concluded it was a contamination and that is why the landrace description states that the birds should be free of all leg feathering. Breeders unfortunate enough to have leg feathering in their flock should be taking measures to remove it if they want their flock to be considered pure. The preservation society in Iceland will not certify a flock as Icelandic if they find leg feathering in it.
Before anyone starts to worry the flocks that have been the flocks of origin for mine, Lyle’s and Sigrid’s imports are all clean-legged so if you get birds that trace back to one of our imports you should have completely clean-legged birds.
Some confusion is to be expected because the issue was up in the air for several years, with a few breeders pushing to get the leg feathering recognized as part of the package so there are lots of old descriptions and sources floating about that say that the birds can or may have leg-feathering. This is why the preservation association had to form a research committee about it (which Jóhanna was a member of) and put the result in the description.
Description of the general characteristics of the Icelandic Chicken as adopted by ERL (The Icelandic Chicken Owners and Breeders Association of Iceland) on March 2, 2013
1. Small head size relative to body size. Beak is broad and short and the tip curves downward. Crests of varying sizes are common.
2. Variety of combs including single comb (straight or lopped), rosecombs, and other combs.
3. Earlobes are white or cream-colored (light yellow).
4. Cocks have long wattles. Hen wattles vary in size.
5. Eyes are yellowish-green, yellowish-brown, or orange
6. Short and thick neck.
7. Compact body with a short back, tapers to the rear. Dome-shaped breast. Typical weight for mature hens is 3 to 3 ½ pounds (1.4 – 1.6 kilos) and for mature cocks 4 ½ to 5 ¼ pounds (2.1 – 2.4 kilos).
8. Feathering is dense and smooth.
9. Wings are broad and short, tapering back toward the rear.
10. Tail sits high and is very mobile. Cocks have long and well-curved sickle feathers.
11. Color pattern variety is vast. All colors are permitted.
12. Legs are long and come in many colors.
13. Hens typically have small spurs. Cocks have long, upturned spurs.
14. Foot has four toes. Back toe is located slightly on the inside of the foot.
15. Clean shanked. (Clear of all leg-feathering).
1. Friendly, curious, and independent. Has a stable temperament.
2. Hens readily go broody and have strong mothering instincts.
3. Character and personalities vary between birds.
4. Both males and females have good fertility. *Updated March 9, 2014
Icelandic chickens are a hardy, self-reliant breed with flavorful meat and good egg-laying ability. This ancient breed is great at foraging the majority of their own food, which means you won’t have to spend much money on supplemental feed. The hens also make great mothers.
Harvey Ussery wrote an article for MOTHER entitled “Icelandic Chickens: An Ancient Breed for Modern Homesteads.” You can read it here
2014 Icelandic Breeders List
Lyle Behl, Illinois
Sue Bentley, Langley, BC, Canada
Viking Chickens in Canada
Ruth Jonasson Cartwright, Victoria, BC, Canada
Isaac Helmericks, Alaska
Mary Wetterstroem, Roseland Haven Farm, Florida