Previously: The Moberly-Jourdain Incident.
In the spring of 1945 — April 20, to be precise — an egg hatched on a farm in Fruita, Colorado. Unsurprisingly, out popped a chicken. But this chicken wasn’t just any chicken; this particular chicken would go on to lead a most extraordinary life, most of it spent missing a… well, let’s call it a key piece of anatomy. The chicken, you see, was Mike — or, as his Wikipedia page identifies him, Mike the Headless Chicken.
Because that is the key piece of anatomy we’re talking about here: After one fateful day and a botched execution about five months after he first hatched, Mike lived for a year and half without a head attached to his scrawny little neck. Not for nothing was he also known as “Miracle Mike.”
Mike was a Wyandotte cockrel — a breed of chicken known for their hardiness and the dependability of their egg-laying. He belonged to the Olsen family; however, like most chickens that live on farms, he wasn’t a pet, but livestock. His days, naturally, were numbered right from the get-go — and on Sept. 10, 1945, that number was up: One of the Olsens — possibly Lloyd, but possibly his wife, Clara; accounts differ depending on who you talk to — took Mike to the chopping block and whacked him with a hatchet to ready him for the cooking pot.
Whether or not that cooking pot was specifically the Olsen’s remains unclear. In October of 1945, a story in LIFE Magazine noted that it was; read the article, “Mrs. L.A. Olson [sic], wife of a farmer in Fruita, Colo., 200 miles west of Denver, decided to have chicken for dinner”; subsequently, she “took Mike to the chopping block and axed off his head.” But in 2015, the Olsen’s great-grandson, Troy Waters and his wife, Christa, who went into the family business and also run a farm in Fruita, told the BBC that some three or four dozen chickens — somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 — all lost their heads that day, of which Mike was just one. Lloyd and Clara regularly butchered chickens and sold the meat at market, because, I mean… they ran a farm. That’s what you do when you run a farm, especially when poultry is a big part of your business.
Anyway, the point is this: The axe swung and the head rolled — but the chicken, astonishingly, didn’t drop. He kept running around. In fact, he was still alive and kicking the next morning.
It’s worth noting that the phrase “running around like a chicken with its head cut off” existed long before Mike did. According to online linguistics database Phrase.org, one of the earliest known appearances of the phrase in print occurred in 1880 in the newspaper the Atlanta Constitution. It’s long been known that chickens do have a tendency to kick for a few moments after they’re butchered; “the firing of postmortem nerves,” as Modern Farmer put it in 2014, can sometimes result in “tremendous movement of the limbs,” causing the chicken to appear to be in a “seemingly panicked state” even after it’s died.
But Mike? Mike did more than kick for a moment or two after the axe came down — which almost certainly had something to do with the way in which he was decapitated. According to poultry physiologist and neurobiologist Dr. Wayne K. Kuenzel, who spoke to Modern Farmer about precisely how Mike’s extraordinary existence could have happened, where you make the cut can be the difference between life and death.
If the cut is above the eyes, then the only thing that’ll get removed is the forebrain, thanks to the angle at which the chicken’s brain is positioned within the bird’s skull. This means that the cerebellum and brain stem will remain — and since these are the parts of the brain that control the chicken’s “basic motor functions and ability to breathe,” it could well continue to live on even after the big chop. Said Dr. Kuenzel, “Because the brain is at that angle [in the skull], you still have the functional part that’s so critical for survival intact.”
That seems to be what happened to Mike. Mike lost his beak, his face, his eyes, and one of his ears; however, according to Dr. Tom Smulders, whom the BBC describes (delightfully) as “a chicken expert” at Newcastle University’s Centre for Behaviour and Evolution, it’s possible that “up to 80 percent of [Mike’s] brain by mass,” including all the bits that controlled his bodily functions — heart rate, breathing, hunger, digestion, and the like — “remained untouched.”
Ergo: Miracle Mike.
After his encounter with the Olsens’ hatchet, Mike could still perch and walk; he also continued to make the motions he would have done — had he had an entire head — to preen and peck, and occasionally tried to crow. He could drink water and “eat” liquid food with the aid of a dropper wielded by the Olsens; additionally, the Olsens developed a method to clear accumulated mucus out of Mike’s throat with a syringe.
Even by today’s standards, Mike was quite the sight — so the Olsens began showing Mike off. Initially, they just took him around Fruita; Lloyd, said Troy Waters to the BBC, would “[bet] people beer or something that he had a live headless chicken.” But after some local press coverage and an invitation from a sideshow promoter to consider touring with Mike, the family cast the net wider: They began traveling with Mike all over the country, setting the price of admission to see him in a sideshow performance at 25 cents a pop.
Unfortunately, though, Mike’s additional time on earth didn’t last as long as it could have. In the spring of 1947, when Mike was about two years old, he began choking on something — possibly a corn kernel, or possibly just mucus; it’s not clear which — at the motel room in Phoenix, Arizona in which he and the Olsens were staying at the time. The Olsens, however, were unable to locate the syringe they used to clear the chicken’s throat; it had apparently been left behind at the sideshow after the day’s showing by accident. Because the syringe was nowhere to be found, the Olsens were unable to clear Mike’s throat, leading him to die by suffocation that night.
Somewhat bizarrely, Lloyd Olsen kept Mike’s death a secret for some time afterwards. “For years, he would claim he had sold [the chicken] to a guy in the sideshow circuit,” Troy Waters told the BBC. “It wasn’t until, well, a few years before he died that he finally admitted to me one night that it died on him. I think he didn’t ever want to admit he screwed up and let the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs die on him.” No one knows where Mike was laid to rest; Olsen took that information with him to his own grave.
There are, of course, a number of ethical quandaries that arise when considering Mike’s continued existence. But today, Mike is generally looked upon fondly, especially in his hometown. At the end of May ever year since 1999 (with the exception of 2020, for obvious reasons), the town of Fruita has celebrated the miraculous bird with the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival; furthermore, in 2000, a four-foot-high sculpture of Mike made of repurposed farming equipment was erected in Fruita’s downtown area. The sculpture sits at the corner of Aspen and Mulberry Streets, if you’re interested in seeing it.
Mike may not be running around anymore, but for this chicken, having his head cut off turned out to be the beginning of an incredible — if bizarre — adventure.
“The Chicken That Lived For 18 Months Without A Head” at the BBC. This excellent article published over by BBC News Magazine in 2014 features interviews with Lloyd and Clara Olsen’s descendants — namely great-grandson Troy Waters and his wife, Christa — and includes photographs from the family archives. Want to see what Mike, Lloyd, and Clara looked like? How about a look at a poem about Mike and the Olsens published in 1945, when the chicken’s popularity was just started to explode? Head here.
LIFE Magazine’s Photo Gallery Of Mike The Headless Chicken. In 2013, TIME Magazine dug into companion magazine LIFE’s photo archives and came up with a whole bunch of images of Mike in his prime. You can see Mike perched on various things, “eating” with his dropper, and even posing with his own decapitated head. (Yes, really.) I’m not sure I’d consider them graphic, per se, but they are a little weird and unsettling; if the thought of seeing a chicken with its head literally cut off — and, in some cases, the head sitting on the ground next to the chicken — is distressing to you, you may want to skip this one. But if you’re curious about exactly how Mike went about his daily life sans head? Well, these photos give you a pretty good idea.
The Livestock Conservancy’s page on the Wyandotte Chicken. Want to know more about the kind of chicken Mike was? Here you go. They’re hardy and friendly, but terrible flyers; also, the hens (which Mike was not) are terrific egg producers. A number of different varieties of Wyandotte exist, but judging from photographs, Mike was a white one. For a space of time, Wyandottes were considered endangered, but happily, they were removed from the Livestock Conservancy’s priority list in 2016. Hoorah!
“Here’s Why A Chicken Can Live With Its Head Cut Off” at Modern Farmer. For a brief explanation of how Mike’s post-hatchet life was even possible, head here. It’s not super jargon-y, so even if you’re not a scientist or a biologist or what have you, it’s quite an approachable piece; it builds off of some of the stuff discussed in the longer BBC News Magazine piece, as well, so if you want a second opinion on some of the science-y stuff brought up in that one, this should fit the bill.
Snap Judgement: Snap #631, “Headless Chicken.” In 2017, WNYC — New York’s NPR station — made Mike the subject of a segment of the podcast/radio show Snap Judgement. It’s classic NPR-style reporting with an emphasis on storytelling; you can hear Troy Waters speak himself about his great-grandfather, his family history, and how he learned about the whole Mike the Headless Chicken thing in the first place. It’s a wild family legacy — and, well, I can only imagine how bananas it must be to learn one day that your great-grandfather had a headless chicken as a pet.
“This Chicken Lived For Two Years Without A Head” via HISTORY on YouTube. This short, minute-and-a-half-long video from HISTORY’s YouTube channel sums up the Mike story pretty succinctly. It also, uh, looks like a horror movie. It’s fitting, I suppose, if a little weird. Then again, being forced to live for two years minus your own head kind of does sound like a horror movie, does it not? (There’s no sound, by the way—just photos and text, with an unsettling soundscape in the background — so if you need something to listen to, check out the Snap Judgement segment above instead.)
MikeTheHeadlessChicken.org. For all things Mike — including info about the Mike The Headless Chicken Festival that takes place in the late spring/early summer in Fruita each year — head here. Festival activities include a 5K run and (of course) a poultry show; you can also check out a map and schedule of the regular layout, see some photos, and buy some merch if you feel like it. There’s a short bio page that gives you a bit more on the history of Mike himself, too.
“The Legend Of Mike The Headless Chicken Lives On” at the Gazette. Colorado Springs paper the Gazette published a nice little article about the Mike The Headless Chicken Festival in 2019. In addition to describe the festivities, it also really underlines how far-reaching this odd little story about this odd little bird has become: The 2018 festival drew a crowd of about 17,000, which the Gazette reports is actually greater than Fruita’s own population; additionally, organizer Tom Casel said that that year, he’d “talked to someone from Great Britain,” “did a radio show in Michigan,” and “did a radio show in Toronto,” while the previous year, the festival’s marketing team had “talked to people in Ireland and Germany.” There’s more from Troy Waters here, too — it’s well worth the read.
“Mike The Headless Chicken Sculpture” at Atlas Obscura. Want to know more about the sculpture of Mike in downtown Fruita? Atlas Obscura has you covered. This page shows you exactly where to find the sculpture — and has a few photos, to boot. Not going to lie: I think it’s a pretty neat piece of art!
The Natural History Of The Chicken (2000), dir. Mark Lewis. I don’t know about you, but I love a good documentary about an unexpectedly delightful subject — and that’s exactly what The Natural History Of The Chicken is. Produced in 2000 for PBS, it “investigates the role of the chicken in American life and tells several remarkable stories,” according to its IMDb description. Interviews and reenactments are utilized to tell those stories, which include one from a farmer in Maine who “says she found a chicken frozen stiff, but was able to resuscitate it”; one from a woman in Florida who treats her pet chicken the way most people treat pet dogs or cats; and, of course, one about good ol’ Mike.
Chick Flick: The Miracle Mike Story (2003), dir. Alexandre O. Philippe. So, hey, fun fact: Mike is the subject of a second feature-length documentary, this time described as being “shot in the style of the Golden Age of comic books.” I cannot tell if it is good documentary; I… can’t seem to get a hold of it. I just… need you all to know that it exists, because it looks wild. (Alexandre O. Philippe, by the way, is probably best known for his 2010 documentary about George Lucas and his volatile fan community, The People vs. George Lucas.)
Chick Flick’s website is no longer live, but it’s been preserved via the Wayback Machine, so, uh, go poke around there if you’re interested. It’s… very early 2000s.
Two Extremely Different Songs About Mike The Headless Chicken. Surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly; I’m not really sure, to be honest — Mike has become the subject of several songs over the years. Here are two of them: “The Cluck Stops Here (The Ballad Of Mike The Headless Chicken)” and “Headless Mike.” The former was written by Julie Mangin and Carolee Rand and first performed in 2006 at Mangin’s “Tacky Treasures Roadshow”; it’s kind of a folk-y, country, upbeat sort of ballad. The latter was written by Los Angeles-based punk band the Radioactive Chicken Heads and released in 2008, with a wacky, wacky music video coming along in 2012.
They are… very different from each other, these two songs.