The Story of Mike the Headless Chicken

Josh Clark

When you drive a hatchet through the neck of a chicken, rendering it decapitated, it tends to thrash about here or there for a little while before it dies. Generally one won't live eighteen more months, only to asphyxiate on some corn lodged in its exposed esophagus in a motel room in Arizona. Such is why the story of Mike the Headless Chicken is arguably the most recounted chicken decapitation story in America.

There's really no wrong way to tell this story: Mike was an unnamed, anonymous 2.5-lb. bird living in Fruita, Colorado when he was chosen to die by farmer Lloyd Olsen who planned on eating him one evening in September 1948. After the hatchet was dropped and the rooster's head severed from his body, Mike went through the usual indignant rigmarole over the abuse, flopping about and flapping his wings and the like. After a moment, however, he got over the affront and went back to the usual chicken pastimes like pecking for food. Except without a head.

After they realized that Mike didn't plan on succumbing to death anytime soon, and being humane and soulful people, Farmer Olsen and his wife chose to sustain the rooster's life by feeding and watering him with the aid of an eyedropper. They also used the dropper to clear debris from his esophagus and didn't have it with them in that motel in Arizona, which is why Mike died.

The Olsens were also curious people and they took Mike to the University of Utah, where 1940s scientists looked around his neck cavity and determined that Farmer Olsen had lopped off Mike's head above the brain stem. This is the most primitive part of any brain, responsible for the most basic bodily functions. Which means chickens apparently operate normally on the same level as a brain dead human who retains the ability to urinate in a hospital bed and whose pupils may still dilate. The scientists concluded that Mike had no real problem with losing his head, aside from the loss of sensory input from the tongue and eyes. The farmer had missed an ear as well as the brain stem, so Mike could still hear, though not so good as he used to.

Being the 1940s, there wasn't much to do, so people in major cities around the country paid a quarter to gawk at Mike and his head, which the Olsens carried around with them to appearances. The life of a star sat well with the rooster. Over the course of the eighteen months that occurred between Mike's loss of his head and his death, he gained five pounds. As we've seen, he also died in the manner of a star, choking to death in a motel room.

These days in Fruita, the town holds the Mike The Headless Chicken Day the first week of every May. It's not so much in the spirit of the freak show gawkers who came out to see Mike fifty years ago, but in the spirit of the Olsens who recognized and honored Mike the Headless Chicken's indomitable will to live, or at least the continued functioning of his brain stem.

Here's a short doc on Mike on YouTube. Thanks for telling me about Mike, LOML. [youtube=]

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