You have most likely heard the expression “to run around like a chicken with its head cut off” and know that this particular saying is used to describe individuals who look confused and panicked in certain situations. But apart from having a metaphoric meaning, there is also a literal truth to this expression. It’s a fact that a chicken can live for several minutes without a head, running around in panic and confusion.
The birds can survive because of their brain position, which is in a small space of the skull at a 45-degree angle. The cerebellum and the brain stem, responsible for most vital functions, are in the chicken’s neck, so when the head is severed, the body can go on for a short time. Most of the unlucky birds die moments after they lose their head, running around frantically before giving out, but some chickens continue being active for several minutes. There is, however, one case of a chicken that lived for a year and a half without its head.
Mike the Headless Chicken, also known as Miracle Mike, was a five-month-old male who lived a happy life on a farm in Fruita, Colorado. On September 10, 1945, Lloyd Olsen—the owner of the farm—and his wife, Clara, decided it was time for Mike to become a part of someone’s dinner, so he beheaded the animal.
Mike was just one of the 40 to 50 chickens that went under Olsen’s hatchet on that fateful day, but he was no ordinary chicken. Miracle Mike was about to become a national celebrity and a wonder of nature like no other.
The cockerel refused to die, and after a short run around, he settled down as if nothing had happened. Mike even (unsuccessfully) tried to peck for food, so the farmer decided to let the chicken be. The very next morning he found Mike sleeping, still alive, so Olsen decided to take care of the bird. He began feeding Mike with water, milk, and small pieces of corn. The farmer would deposit food directly into chicken’s throat, using a small eye dropper.
Mike survived the beheading because the farmer’s hatchet missed his jugular vein, so the cockerel only lost his sight and a piece of his brain that wasn’t responsible for the vital functions of his body. Mike did become clumsier without his head. Soon, the local newspaper wrote an article about the miraculous chicken, and Olsen received an offer to take the headless bird on a traveling sideshow across the United States. Their road adventure began, and Mike’s fame grew as they traveled between cities.
People would pay to see the headless bird, so at the peak of his fame, Mike earned his owner around $4,500 per month. The value of the chicken was estimated at $10,000. Mike frequently appeared in the news, including in Time and Life magazines. For 18 months the chicken traveled around the U.S., until his last trip to Phoenix, Arizona.
Mike lived like a star and died as one too. On March 17, 1947, while Mike and his owner were spending the night in a Phoenix motel, the chicken choked on a kernel of corn. Olsen didn’t have the necessary equipment to save him, so Mike died, leaving his fame tour unfinished.
Olsen did not want to admit to the world that Mike was dead, so he told the press that he’d sold the chicken.
Miracle Mike remained famous, and residents of Fruita erected a statue in the town to commemorate him. There’s even an annual Headless Chicken festival organized every May, held in honor of the chicken that lived headless for 18 months.