Chicken With No Head

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Have you ever looked at a chicken and thought, “I should do something with that chicken?’ Chicken With No Head is here to help you make use of those dead chickens lying around. No matter if you have your own place to raise chickens, or just like chicken legs — there’s always room for improvement.

The chicken that lived for 18 months without a head

Mike the headless chicken

Seventy years ago, a farmer beheaded a chicken in Colorado, and it refused to die. Mike, as the bird became known, survived for 18 months and became famous. But how did he live without a head for so long, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.

On 10 September 1945 Lloyd Olsen and his wife Clara were killing chickens, on their farm in Fruita, Colorado. Olsen would decapitate the birds, his wife would clean them up. But one of the 40 or 50 animals that went under Olsen’s hatchet that day didn’t behave like the rest.

“They got down to the end and had one who was still alive, up and walking around,” says the couple’s great-grandson, Troy Waters, himself a farmer in Fruita. The chicken kicked and ran, and didn’t stop.

It was placed in an old apple box on the farm’s screened porch for the night, and when Lloyd Olsen woke the following morning, he stepped outside to see what had happened. “The damn thing was still alive,” says Waters.

“It’s part of our weird family history,” says Christa Waters, his wife.

Waters heard the story as a boy, when his bedridden great-grandfather came to live in his parents’ house. The two had adjacent bedrooms, and the old man, often sleepless, would talk for hours.

“He took the chicken carcasses to town to sell them at the meat market,” Waters says.

“He took this rooster with him – and back then he was still using the horse and wagon quite a bit. He threw it in the wagon, took the chicken in with him and started betting people beer or something that he had a live headless chicken.”

Word spread around Fruita about the miraculous headless bird. The local paper dispatched a reporter to interview Olsen, and two weeks later a sideshow promoter called Hope Wade travelled nearly 300 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah. He had a simple proposition: take the chicken on to the sideshow circuit – they could make some money.

“Back then in the 1940s, they had a small farm and were struggling,” Waters says. “Lloyd said, ‘What the hell – we might as well.'”

First they visited Salt Lake City and the University of Utah, where the chicken was put through a battery of tests. Rumour has it that university scientists surgically removed the heads of many other chickens to see whether any would live.

It was here that Life Magazine came to marvel over the story of Miracle Mike the Headless Chicken – as he had by now been branded by Hope Wade. Then Lloyd, Clara and Mike set off on a tour of the US.

They went to California and Arizona, and Hope Wade took Mike on a tour of the south-eastern United States when the Olsens had to return to their farm to collect the harvest.

The bird’s travels were carefully documented by Clara in a scrapbook that is preserved in the Waters’s gun safe today.

People around the country wrote letters – 40 or 50 in all – and not all positive. One compared the Olsens to Nazis, another from Alaska asked them to swap Mike’s drumstick in exchange for a wooden leg. Some were addressed only to “The owners of the headless chicken in Colorado”, yet still found their way to the family farm.

After the initial tour, the Olsens took Mike the Headless Chicken to Phoenix, Arizona, where disaster struck in the spring of 1947.

“That’s where it died – in Phoenix,” Waters says.

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What happens when a chicken’s head is chopped off?

  • Beheading disconnects the brain from the rest of the body, but for a short period the spinal cord circuits still have residual oxygen.
  • Without input from the brain these circuits start spontaneously. “The neurons become active, the legs start moving,” says Dr Tom Smulders of Newcastle University.
  • Usually the chicken is lying down when this happens, but in rare cases, neurons will fire a motor programme of running.
  • “The chicken will indeed run for a little while,” says Smulders. “But not for 18 months, more like 15 minutes or so.”
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Mike was fed with liquid food and water that the Olsens dropped directly into his oesophagus. Another vital bodily function they helped with was clearing mucus from his throat. They fed him with a dropper, and cleared his throat with a syringe.

The night Mike died, they were woken in their motel room by the sound of the bird choking. When they looked for the syringe they realised they had left it at the sideshow, and before they could find an alternative, Mike suffocated.

“For years he would claim he had sold [the chicken] to a guy in the sideshow circuit,” Waters says, before pausing. “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.”

Olsen would never tell what he did with the dead bird. “I’m willing to bet he got flipped out in the desert somewhere between here and Phoenix, on the side of the road, probably eaten by coyotes,” Waters says.

But by any measure Mike, bred as a fryer chicken, had a good innings. How had he been able to survive for so long?

The thing that surprises Dr Tom Smulders, a chicken expert at the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution at Newcastle University, is that he did not bleed to death. The fact that he was able to continue functioning without a head he finds easier to explain.

How Mike the Chicken Survived Without a Head


Domestic chickens (Gallus) on a farm. Rooster hen poultry bird fowl

On September 10, 1945, Lloyd Olsen was beheading chickens for market on his family farm in Fruita, Colorado, when one of the decapitated birds picked itself up and started running around the yard, still very much alive. Olsen put the chicken, which he named Mike, in a box on the porch and was amazed to find it still alive the next morning. 

Mike survived because most of a chicken’s brain is located in the back of its head, behind the eyes. When Olsen brought down the axe, he lobbed off most of Mike’s head but left the part of the brain that controlled breathing, digestion, and other bodily functions.   

Olsen realized he had in Mike an attraction that others would pay to see and spent the next 18 months exhibiting the headless rooster at fairs, carnivals, and other public events. He fed Mike by dripping water and liquid food into his esophagus with a dropper and removed mucous from his throat with a syringe. Mike became so famous that even Time magazine wrote about him.

Mike died on March 17, 1947, while on tour in Phoenix, Arizona. Olsen and his wife, Clara, awoke in their hotel room to the sound of Mike choking on mucous. They searched for the syringe, only to realize that they had accidentally left it at the sideshow where Mike had been on display. Unable to suction the mucous from Mike’s throat, they could only look on as he suffocated.

Though his amazing story ended many decades ago, Mike the Headless Chicken has not been forgotten by the citizens of Fruita. Every year, the city hosts a festival in his honor, which draws hundreds of attendees from around the United States.

  • How long can a chicken survive without its head?
How long can a chicken survive without its head? © Getty Images

How long can a chicken survive without its head?

In the 1940s in the US, a chicken called Mike lived for 18 months without a head. He had been almost completely beheaded with an axe, but crucially the jugular vein and most of the brainstem were left intact. This left just enough brain function for essential functions, like breathing, and Mike was fed with an eyedropper through the stump of his neck.

In Thailand, in March 2018, a similar case was reported, and the strong-stomached can even watch a video of the headless chicken online. But for more normal, complete beheadings, a chicken will die of blood loss in a matter of minutes.

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