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A sculpture of 'Mike the Headless Chicken'

The unbelievable story of 'Mike the Headless Chicken'

Image: A sculpture of 'Mike the Headless Chicken' in Fruita, Colorado | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo / AP Photo/David Zalubowski

The UnBelievable with Dan Aykroyd opens up a cabinet of curiosities to reveal the strangest stories in human history, including that of Mike the Headless Chicken. The show airs Mondays at 10pm on Sky HISTORY as part of Mystery Season.

Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘to run around like a headless chicken’? It usually infers that someone is panicking or carelessly rushing around. The analogy to a decapitated fowl is based on the fact that chickens have been known to run around for a short while after they’ve had their heads cut off, sometimes up to 15 minutes.

One bird, however, defied all the odds and walked around for 18 months after losing his head. This is the unbelievable story of Mike the Headless Chicken.

The cut

Mike’s story begins on a farm in Fruita, Colorado in September 1945. Not long after the conclusion of World War II, a family of farmers were preparing a batch of 40-50 chickens for market. Lloyd Olsen and his wife Clara worked as a team to get the task done. Lloyd decapitated the birds whilst Clara plucked and cleaned them.

At day’s end, the pair noticed something rather strange was happening with one of the roosters; it was still walking around without a head. A chicken’s spinal cord can continue to send signals via the nervous system for a short while after decapitation, leading to reflexive movements that can cause the bird’s legs to start moving.

However, the fact that Mike (who was an American breed of chicken called a Wyandotte) was still up and running hours after losing his head was somewhat confusing. The Olsens decided to move Mike to their porch and placed him in a box.

The road to fame

The next morning, when the Olsens saw that Mike was still very much alive and kicking, they decided to care for the bird and see how long he could live.

They took him with them when they went to sell the rest of the chicken carcasses at the market. For a bit of fun, Lloyd started betting people he had a living headless chicken in his wagon. Word soon spread of the miraculous Mike and it didn't take much time at all for the local press to come knocking.

Within a couple of weeks, a sideshow promoter by the name of Hope Wade travelled hundreds of miles from Utah to visit the Olsen farm. He convinced them that Mike could earn a pretty penny if they travelled the country showing him off.

The opportunity to earn a quick buck or two was understandably alluring for the struggling farmers and they agreed to hit the road.

Science explains the marvel

Before the masses could gawk at the bizarre sight of a living headless chicken, Mike was taken to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. There, scientists explained the reasons behind Mike’s continued existence.

The majority of a chicken’s brain is actually in the back of its skull, behind the eyes, so whilst Lloyd chopped off most of Mike’s head - including his beak, eyes and an ear – most of Mike’s brain was left intact and continued to control vital bodily functions such as breathing and digestion. A fortunate blood clot prevented him from bleeding to death; all in all, Mike was one lucky chicken.

However, Mike still needed extra care and attention to keep him alive. Food and water were dripped directly into his oesophagus via a dropper, whilst mucus was cleared from his throat with a syringe.

Mike goes national

Whilst in Salt Lake City, Mike's fame hit the national level after Life Magazine came to write a piece on him and take pictures.

The Olsens, along with Hope Wade, then took Mike on a tour across California, Arizona and Southeast USA. Several stints at home on the family farm broke up the travelling. This is when the Olsens could catch up on Mike’s fan mail which had been sent from far and wide. Not all of it was positive with some people disapproving of the Olsens’ behaviour.

An unfortunate accident

Whilst on tour in Phoenix, Arizona in the spring of 1947, a tragic accident led to the unfortunate demise of Mike.

During the night in a motel room, the Olsens were awoken by the sound of Mike choking on mucus. They reached for the syringe to clear his oesophagus only to realise they’d left it at the sideshow that previous day. Unable to find an alternative way to clear Mike’s throat, the chicken suffocated to death.

Realising that they'd accidentally killed the 'goose that laid the golden egg’, embarrassment led Lloyd to tell people he’d sold Mike to another promoter in the sideshow circuit.

The truth of Mike’s demise didn’t come to light for several decades. Lloyd finally admitted what happened to his great-grandson, Troy Waters, who believes that, after his death, Mike was most likely ‘flipped out in the desert…probably eaten by coyotes’.

Mike’s legacy

Thanks to Mike, the Olsens were able to modernise their farming equipment and buy a new pickup truck. They continued to spend their days farming the land with fond memories of their time on the road travelling the country.

As for Mike, he remains the only known chicken to have lived so long without a head. Whilst others have attempted to create their own Mike, including a neighbour of the Olsens, none have ever been successful.

Mike’s legacy continues to live on in Fruita at the annual summer festival aptly named ‘Mike the Headless Chicken Festival’. The celebration includes a 5k run, music, food, games and plenty of headless chicken costumes and merchandise.