2013.05.01 Time to celebrate Mike, the Headless Chicken

Written by David Green.


A friend of mine once told me a story that still haunts her 40 years after the event. When she was four or five years old, she and her mother went to visit someone who lived in the country. That person also happened to be raising a number of chickens.

The chickens tended to congregate around the front porch of the house and  one of them, a particularly ill-mannered chicken, was famous for chasing anyone who got too close. Since my friend was quite young at the time, she asked her mother to carry her so that the chicken couldn’t get to her. Her mother said just to stay far away and the chicken wouldn’t bother them.

That strategy failed miserably. They had barely gotten out of the car when the chicken jumped off the porch and charged at them. The owner came to their rescue, grabbed the chicken and said he was going to end the problem once and for all. He took the chicken out behind the house where he apparently attempted to speed it along the way to chicken heaven.

Imagine my friend’s horror when suddenly, the now-headless chicken came running toward her and her mother, no doubt with revenge on its mind. No, let me rephrase that. The chicken no longer had a head so there couldn’t be anything on it’s mind. No matter. It was definitely time for my friend and her mother to go, and my friend never went back to the house. Therefore, she doesn’t know what eventually happened to the chicken. Another headless chicken, however, is still famous more than 65 years after its death.

Known as Mike (although no one knows the source of the name), the Wyandotte rooster was born in Fruita, Colorado in April, 1945. Farmer Lloyd Olsen and his wife had Olsen’s mother-in-law over for supper on September 10 and Olsen decided to butcher Mike for their meal. Unfortunately, Olsen’s axe missed Mike’s jugular vein and left an ear and the major portion of the brain stem still attached and Mike still alive.

Apparently, this isn’t that unusual of a situation as many freshly killed chickens are able to stagger around for a bit after losing their heads before finally expiring. Mike, however, was still alive the next morning and farmer Olsen decided to care for Mike rather than finish the job.

Olsen came up with the idea of giving Mike water and grain with an eyedropper. When he was still alive a week later, Olsen took the rooster to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City for an examination.

Scientists determined that a blood clot had formed which stopped Mike from bleeding to death. The brain stem which controls most reflex actions in chickens was mostly intact. Mike’s habit of pecking for food with what was left of his neck didn’t help him any, but as long as Olsen continued to feed Mike, he had a good chance at survival. And the Olsen’s had a headless meal ticket for themselves.

Billed as “The Headless Wonder Chicken,” Mike, his new manager, and the Olsens went on a nationwide tour. With an admission fee of 25 cents, Mike earned as much as $4,500 per month (in 1945 dollars) and was insured for $10,000. Life magazine published a feature on him.

Others attempted to capitalize on Mike’s financial success by beheading and creating their own headless chickens, but none of the prospective imitators lived for more than a few days. Mike, on the other hand, thanks to Olsen’s patience in feeding and watering him, grew from two and a half pounds at the time of his beheading to nearly eight pounds over an 18-month period.

Unfortunately, in March, 1947, Mike and the Olsens were on tour in Arizona when Mike began to choke in the middle of the night. Lloyd Olsen couldn’t find the eyedropper he used to clear Mike’s esophagus and the rooster passed away.

Starting in 1999, Mike’s hometown of Fruita began holding the “Mike the Headless Chicken Festival” the third weekend of May. This year’s event will be the 15th annual celebration. Scheduled happenings include a “5K Run Like a Headless Chicken Race,” a rousing “Pin the Head on the Chicken” competition, a “Chicken Cluck-Off,” and “Chicken Bingo.”  What, no Chicken Nugget cook-off? 

There’s hardly enough time to make arrangements to attend this year’s event, but I’ve got a year to plan for the 2014 festival. I wonder if my friend would like to go? I can’t wait to ask her.


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