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On the evening of September 10th 1945 a young rooster was pecking away at food scattered about a yard in Fruita, Colorado little knowing the fate that was about to befall him. Meanwhile Lloyd Olsen, a farmer, was sent out to the yard to find a suitable chicken to use in a meal his wife Clara was planning on making for her mother.

Mike The Headless Chicken
Image credit: Mike The Headless Chicken

Lloyd chose the five-and-a-half month old cockerel named Mike as the unlucky bird to be consigned to the cooking pot. Lloyd was aware his mother-in-law was partial to a bit of roast chicken neck and he brought his sharp axe down as near to Mike's head as he could in order to save most of the neck. As proverbial headless chickens are wont to do Mike continued to stagger around the yard.

However, the blow did not terminate Mike’s life and he attempted to preen, peck for food and crow just like his other barnyard companions. The next morning Mike was still not dead and was in fact found sleeping with his ‘head’ tucked under his wing. Lloyd decided that a bird of such willpower should be allowed to live and he would continue to care for the bird using an eyedropper filled with milk and water and the occasional small grains of corn deposited directly into Mike’s oesophagus.

As news of Mike’s predicament spread Lloyd decided to take him on the road touring sideshows in the company of other odd creatures such as a two-headed calf. Mike became a national celebrity with Lloyd charging 25 c for a chance to see him. At the height of his fame ‘Mike The Headless Wonder Chicken’ was reportedly earning $4,500 a month and was valued at $10,000.

He was featured in Time and Life magazines and would appear alongside a dried chicken’s head in a jar purporting to be his own. In fact the Olsen’s cat had made off with the original not long after the unfortunate incident. Mike grew fat on his fame putting on 6 pounds in the two years after losing his head.

But one night in Phoenix, Arizona tragedy struck and Mike began to choke. The Olsens had left their feeding and cleaning syringes at a sideshow the day before and were unable to save Mike.

After Mike’s death his remains were taken to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. There, scientists confirmed that the axe had missed the jugular vein and blood clot had prevented Mike from bleeding to death.

So how can a chicken survive without its head? Part of the reason, according to Dr. Wayne J. Kuenzel a poultry physiologist and neurobiologist at the University of Arkansas is due to its skeletal anatomy.

The skull of a chicken contains two large openings for the eyes so the brain is pushed upwards into the skull at an angle of 45 degrees. This means that although some of the brain could be sliced away the cerebellum and brain stem are likely to remain intact so it can perform basic motor functions and breathe.

Mike’s success resulted in a number of copycat beheadings although none of the victims survived for more than a couple of days.

The legacy of Mike lives on. An annual festival has been held in Fruita every May since 1999 dedicated to Mike the Headless Chicken where the townspeople enjoy music, food, games, poultry shows and wing eating contests.

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