Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Screenshot: Chicken Run
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Mike The Headless Chicken

What it’s about: Eligible, not too stupid, intelligible, and cute as cupid: Sadly none of these phrases describe Mike The Headless Chicken, a fowl who, due to a botched decapitation, lived for a year and a half with most of his head missing. The chicken became a popular sideshow attraction and is still Fruita, Colorado’s claim to fame.


Strangest fact: While humans using only 10 percent of their brains is a misconception, apparently chickens don’t need very much of theirs. In 1945, Lloyd Olsen picked out a chicken from his farm to be that night’s dinner. But his aim was off, his ax removing most of the chicken’s head but missing the jugular vein. The chicken still had one ear and most of its brain stem. It was enough brain for the chicken to handle most of its regular routine, including walking (clumsily), attempting to peck for food (hampered by lack of a beak), and crow (by making a gurgling sound). Olsen named the remarkable survivor Mike and discovered he could feed it milk and water through an eyedropper and by dropping small grains of corn into its exposed throat.

Mike in Life magazine (Photo: Brian Brainerd/Getty Images)

Biggest controversy: Mike was widely believed to be a hoax, but Olsen was serious enough about showing off his feathered oddity as legitimate that he went to the University Of Utah to have scientists confirm that the headless bird was alive. As Wikipedia puts it, in a sentence clearly added by someone with more expertise than the article required, “This is a good example of central motor generators enabling basic homeostatic functions to be carried out in the absence of higher brain centres.” Yeah, what they said.

Thing we were happiest to learn: More than 50 years later, Mike became a cottage industry for his hometown. Since 1999, Frutia, Colorado, has held an annual “Mike The Headless Chicken Day” on the third weekend of May. The celebrations include a “Run Like A Headless Chicken” 5K, “Chicken Cluck-Off,” and a bingo game in which the numbers are called by a chicken pooping on a numbered grid.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Whatever level of self-awareness you may ascribe to chickens, Mike must have had a fairly hellish existence—blind, unable to fully perform the most basic of chicken tasks, and fed through an eyedropper. Olsen was able to keep the bird alive for 18 months (15 years in chicken years), earning $4,500 a month ($47,700 in 2015 dollars) exhibiting the bird in a sideshow, and Mike was featured in Time and Life magazines. While on tour in Phoenix in 1947, Mike choked on a kernel of corn. The chicken was in a motel room, and without his feeding equipment handy, Olsen was unable to save the bird. For some reason, instead of acknowledging Mike’s death, Olsen claimed he had sold the bird, and people believed for years afterward that the headless chicken was still touring the country.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wikipedia has a hyper-specific category like 1945 animal births, but Wikipedia leads you to several animals born that year, including Big Bertha, a cow who lived to the age of 49, having given birth to 39 calves (both world records). The cow also managed to raise $75,000 for charity. That year also saw the birth of a few notable horses: FL Lady Bug, a mare who was famous in horse-racing circles despite never setting hoof on a track—10 of her 14 foals were winning racehorses; Halla, who won three Olympic gold medals (still an equine record); and Skipper W, a stallion who sired 132 horses, 13 of which were champion racers.


Further down the Wormhole: The University Of Utah, where Mike’s headless status was authenticated, is in Salt Lake City. While that city is best known as the seat of the Mormon church, it also has an Eastern Orthodox community, with a Greek Orthodox Cathedral dating back to 1923. The Orthodox faith is the second-largest sect of Christianity and one of the oldest religions in the world. It faced one of its greatest tests during the Polish-Muscovite Wars, when Catholic Poland tried to conquer its larger neighbor through military and diplomatic means. We’ll see how close they came next week.

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