Mike meet everyone, everyone meet Mike. No, no, don’t wave. He can’t see, you’re just making this awkward.
Also known as Miracle Mike, Mike the Headless Chicken was a plump, five-year-old cockerel when he was unceremoniously beheaded on 10 September 1945. Farmer Lloyd Olsen of Fruita in Colorado did the deed because his wife Clara was having her mother over for dinner that night, and Olsen knew she'd always enjoyed a bit of roast chicken neck. With that in mind, Olsen tried to save most of Mike's neck as he lopped his head off, but in doing so, he accidentally made his axe miss Mike’s jugular vein, plus one ear and most of his brain stem, and to his surprise, Mike didn’t die.
In fact, Mike stuck around for a good 18 months without his head.
Immediately after it happened, Mike reeled around like any headless chicken would, but soon settled down. He even started pecking at the ground for food with his newly minted stump, and made preening motions. His crows had become throaty gurglings. Olsen, bewildered, left him to it. The next morning, when Olsen found Mike asleep in the barn, having attempted to tuck his head under his wing as he always had, the farmer took it upon himself to figure out how to feed this unwitting monstrosity. Mike had earned that much.
All Olsen had to do was deposit food and water into Mike’s exposed oesophagus via a little eyedropper. He even got small grains of corn sometimes as a treat.
Mike’s unlikely survival has everything to do with how his skeleton was shaped, Wayne J. Kuenzel, a poultry physiologist and neurobiologist at the University of Arkansas, told Rebecca Katzman at Modern Farmer. Because a chicken’s skull includes two huge holes for holding its eyes in place, its brain fits snuggly into the remaining space at a 45-degree angle. This means you could slice the top bit of the brain off while still leaving a good portion - with the cerebellum and the brain stem - behind. “Because the brain is at that angle,” Kuenzel told Katzman, “you still have the functional part that’s so critical for survival intact.”
That Mike’s cerebellum was positioned below his massive eye holes and was spared by Olsen’s axe means he was still perfectly able to perform basic motor functions and breathe. He was just a little bit more clumsy now because, you know, he had no eyes.
Mike was so unfazed by the whole experience that farmer Olsen decided to hit the road and take his miracle fowl on a national tour. He was featured in Time Magazine and Life, got his name in the Guinness Book of Records, and had his own sideshows, giving the American public the chance to meet ‘Mike the Headless Wonder Chicken’. Mike even had his own manager, who must have done a good job, because he made Olsen an absolute fortune, as John Lloyd and John Mitchinson wrote in The Book of General Ignorance:
"At the height of his fame, Mike was making $4,500 a month, and was valued at $10,000. His success resulted in a wave of copycat chicken beheadings, though none of the unfortunate victims lived for more than a day or two.”
Not that Mike knew what was going on, but if he could see the part of the sideshow and photo shoots where Olsen or his manager would hold up his dried, severed head next to his neck, he probably would have been pretty offended. And what would have made things worse was the fact that he would have known that it wasn’t even his head, and wouldn’t have been able to say anything about it. The reality is, as Lloyd and Mitchinson report, Olsen’s cat actually ran off with Mike’s original head.
It’s almost a given that with all this fame and all this fortune, something tragic was going to happen in a nondescript motel room to turn all dreams into dust. The national tour had taken Mike and farmer Olsen to Phoenix, and as they were hanging out in their motel room, Mike was snacking on some corn bits. But then, he began to choke. "Lloyd Olsen, to his horror, realised he’d left the eyedropper at the previous day’s show,” write Lloyd and Mitchinson. "Unable to clear his airways, Mike choked to death.”
Even headless chickens have no business flying that close to the Sun, it would seem.
Not that he had a terrible life in his beheadedness. According to the official Mike the Headless Chicken website, in the 18 months that he spent without his head, he grew from a mere 2.5 pounds to almost 8 pounds. In an interview after his death, Olsen said Mike was a "robust chicken - a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head”.
Olsen took Mike’s body to researchers at the University of Utah for an autopsy, who confirmed that a blood clot in his neck had prevented him from bleeding to death when he was beheaded.
They still love Mike in Colorado. Every third weekend of May, locals will hold an annual Mike the Headless Chicken Festival, where they can enjoy music, contests, and food. Which is what he would have wanted. Mike just seemed like that kind of guy.