Chicken With Head Chopped Off

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Chicken with head chopped off is an idiom that means something is done or happening exceptionally well. It was selected as the title because it stands out and gets your attention, kind of like a chicken would if they had no head attached to their torso. For example:

Here’s Why a Chicken Can Live Without Its Head

Why a chicken can run around with its head cut off.

Mike the Headless Chicken, ca. 1945. / Courtesy miketheheadlesschicken.org.

Mike The Headless Chicken lived for 18 months without a noggin after a farmer, in a failed attempt at slaughter, axed off his head and missed the jugular vein. “Miracle Mike” was eye-droppered a milk and water mixture until he met his unexpected death over a year later when he choked on a kernel of corn.

Part of the reason that a chicken can live without its head has to do with its skeletal anatomy, according to Dr. Wayne J. Kuenzel a poultry physiologist and neurobiologist at the University of Arkansas. The skull of a chicken contains two massive openings for the eyes that allow the brain to be shoved upwards into the skull at an angle of around 45 degrees. This means that while some of the brain may be sliced away, a very important part remains.

“But because the brain is at that angle,” says Kuenzel, “you still have the functional part that’s so critical for survival intact.”

Slicing below the eyes is key, he says. Above the eyes removes only the forebrain. If the bird still has a bottom beak, the cerebellum and brain stem are likely still intact, which makes the chicken’s basic motor functions and ability to breathe quite likely. What this means is that, under very specific circumstances, you may end up with a lobotomized chicken on your hands. Alive, but missing quite a few parts of its brain.

The capacity of chickens to live without parts of their brains even inspired a U.K. architect student, André Ford, in 2012 to propose the systematic rearing of brain-dead broilers as a method of maximizing factory-farm production and to curb chicken-suffering. (This plan did not come to fruition).

Just because your chicken dances upon impact doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s still alive.

So: The axe makes contact with the head and the bird squawks and flails about for several visceral seconds before finally biting the dust. But just because your chicken dances upon impact doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s still alive. A truly enduring headless chicken, according to Kuenzel, “is a very rare phenomenon.” In the case of Mike, while the brain was gone, the brain stem remained, which was able to control breathing, heart rate and most reflex actions.

Even with the most humane slice and dice methods out there, the chicken will still writhe around once it loses about half of its blood content. “The minute you separate the brain from the neck, just like in humans, you’re going to get tremendous movement of the limbs,” says Kuenzel. So what is perceived as a seemingly panicked state of the still-living headless chicken could, in fact, be simply the firing of postmortem nerves.

At this stage in the game it’s improbable that the bird is actually feeling any pain since its somatosensory cortex (the part of the brain responsible for sense of touch) is likely severed ”“ if you bleed it out properly and cut in all the right places, the chicken should die in a rapid and humane way. Though to be sure, placing the chicken in a chamber with low atmospheric pressure or calf stunning it is a humane way to slaughter – and without a lot of squirming.

Curious Kids: how can chickens run around after their heads have been chopped off?

Disclosure statement

Jan Hoole does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

The Conversation is funded by the National Research Foundation, eight universities, including the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Rhodes University, Stellenbosch University and the Universities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal, Pretoria, and South Africa. It is hosted by the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Western Cape, the African Population and Health Research Centre and the Nigerian Academy of Science. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a Strategic Partner. 

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If chickens run around after their head has been chopped off, does that mean their brain is in their bum? – Gaelle, age four, Bristol, UK

Thanks for the question, Gaelle. Chickens definitely don’t keep their brain in their bum. But just like humans, they have special fibres called “nerves”, which run like tiny wires all through their body, and some of them end near the surface of the skin. These nerves are what can make a chicken keep moving, even after its head has been chopped off.

Nerves are very important, because they make everything in our body work, including making our muscles move and helping us to feel things, with our sense of touch.

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When you touch something, a little electrical current runs along a sensory nerve to your brain, to tell it what has happened – it’s a bit like hitting the light switch to let electricity run along the cable and into the light bulb.

When the signal gets to your brain, the brain decides what to do about it and sends another little electrical current back down a different nerve, called a motor nerve, with a message to the muscle to move.

Sometimes, the message doesn’t need to go all the way to the brain – it just goes as far as certain groups of nerves in the spinal cord. Then the decision about what to do goes straight back down the motor nerve to move the leg or arm.

For example, if you put your hand or foot down on something that’s really hot, your spinal cord will react to move your limb out of harm’s way – without even pausing to let your brain catch up. This is called a “reflex action”.

When you chop off a chicken’s head, the pressure of the axe triggers all the nerve endings in the neck, causing that little burst of electricity to run down all the nerves leading back to the muscles, to tell them to move. The chicken appears to flap its wings and to run around – even though it’s already dead.

There was one cockerel who became known as Miracle Mike, who had his head chopped off and carried on living for another 18 months!

In his case though, the farmer who had tried to kill him had aimed too high, and had left a bit of his brain still working in the top of his neck, and that’s what allowed him to live.

That can happen to a bird, because its large eye sockets mean that there isn’t room inside its skull for all of its brain, so a bit of the brain lives inside the top of the neck.

Mike was kept alive for all that time by dripping milk and water into what was left of his throat, and he used to walk around just as he had always done.

Some scientists have noticed that frogs that have had their brain destroyed (which should kill them) will hop towards the light from a window. And if something is in their way, they will hop round it.

If the same frog is put in water it will try to reach the surface, and if a jar is put over it while it is in the water, it will dive down to get out of the jar and up to the surface.

It seems impossible, but actually it depends on which bits of the brain have been damaged. If the back parts of the brain, (the brain stem and medulla oblongata, for those who are interested) are not completely destroyed, then the frog can still do many movements.

Back to chickens: although they certainly don’t have their brain in their bum, they do have a little bit of the brain at the top of their neck, and lots of nerves in their spinal cord which respond to feelings in the skin, and make the muscles move – even when their head has been chopped off!

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