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Mike the Headless Chicken (April 1945 – March 1947) was a Wyandotte rooster (cockerel) that lived for 18 months after its head had been cut off. Thought by many to be a hoax, the bird was taken by its owner to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to establish its authenticity.
On Monday, September 10, 1945, farmer Lloyd Olsen of Fruita, Colorado, had his mother-in-law around for supper and was sent out to the yard by his wife to bring back a chicken. Olsen failed to completely decapitate the five-and-a-half month old bird named Mike. The axe missed the jugular vein, leaving one ear and most of the brain stem intact.
On the first night after the decapitation Mike slept with it under his wing;.
Despite Olsen's botched handiwork, Mike was still able to balance on a perch and walk clumsily; he even attempted to preen and crow,although he could do neither. After the bird did not die, a surprised Mr. Olsen decided to continue to care permanently for Mike, feeding him a mixture of milk and water via an eyedropper; he was also fed small grains of corn. Mike occasionally choked on his own mucus, which the Olsen family would clear using a syringe.
When used to his new and unusual center of mass Mike could easily get himself to the highest perches without falling. His crowing, though, was less impressive and consisted of a gurgling sound made in his throat, leaving him unable to crow at dawn. Mike also spent his time preening and attempting to peck for food with his neck.
Being headless did not keep Mike from putting on weight; at the time of his beheading he weighed two and a half pounds, but at the time of his death this had increased to nearly eight pounds.
Once his fame had been established, Mike began a career of touring sideshows in the company of such other creatures as a two-headed calf. He was also photographed for dozens of magazines and papers, featuring in Time and Life magazines. Olsen drew criticism from some for keeping the headless chicken alive.
Mike was on display to the public for an admission cost of 25 cents. At the height of his popularity the chicken earned a princely US$4,500 per month (US$50,000 in 2005 dollars) and was valued at US$10,000. Olsen's success resulted in a wave of copycat chicken beheadings, but no other chicken lived for more than a day or two. A pickled chicken head was also on display with Mike, but this was not Mike's original head, as a cat had already eaten it. Mike was later examined by the officers of several humane societies and was declared to have been free from any suffering.
A children's playground chant soon emerged:-
“ Mike, Mike, where's your head? Even without it, you're not dead! ”
In March 1947, at a motel in Phoenix on a stopover while traveling back home from tour, Mike started choking in the middle of the night. As the Olsens had inadvertently left their feeding and cleaning syringes at the sideshow the day before, they were unable to save Mike. Lloyd Olsen claimed that he had sold the bird off, resulting in stories of Mike still touring the country as late as 1949.
Post mortem, it was determined that the axe blade had missed the carotid artery and a clot had prevented Mike from bleeding to death. Although most of his head was severed, most of his brain stem and one ear was left on his body. Since basic functions (breathing, heart-rate, etc) as well as most of a chicken's reflex actions are controlled by the brain stem, Mike was able to remain quite healthy. Other sources, including the Guinness Book of World Records, say that the chicken's severed esophagus passage could not take in enough air properly to be able to breathe; and therefore choked to death in the motel. However, breathing occurs through the trachea, not the esophagus.
Mike's legacy in Fruita
Mike the Headless Chicken is now an institution in Fruita, Colorado, with an annual "Mike the Headless Chicken Day", the third weekend of May, starting in 1999.
Events held include the "5K Run Like a Headless Chicken Race", egg toss, "Pin the Head on the Chicken", the "Chicken Cluck-Off", and "Chicken Bingo", in which chicken droppings on a numbered grid choose the numbers.