headless chicken
Mayukh Saha
Mayukh Saha
March 25, 2024 ·  5 min read

The Gruesome Truth Behind The Chicken Who Lived Without A Head For 18 Months

Did you know a chicken can survive even after getting beheaded? Sure, most of them survive for a few moments- but this hen lived for 18 months! Around seven decades ago, a farmer decapitated his chicken in Colorado. But surprisingly, the chicken didn’t die. The miraculous bird was then called Mike, and it became pretty famous. The bird survived for 18 months, but this led scientists to wonder about its survival. On the 10th of September, 1945, Lloyd Olsen and his wife were killing their farm animals in Colorado. Olsen had the job of decapitating them, while his wife cleaned them up. The couple would behead almost 50 chickens daily- but one didn’t get the memo.

Troy Waters, the great-grandson of this couple, later informed, “They got down to the end and had one who was still alive, up, and walking around.” The decapitated chicken ran around- but didn’t stop. Rigor mortis hadn’t set in. The headless runt was then placed in an apple box on the porch. When the couple woke up the next morning, it was still alive. Waters mentioned, “The damn thing was still alive.” His wife, Christa Waters added, “It’s part of our weird family history.”

Mike-The Headless Chicken 

Troy himself heard the story from Lloyd when he was bedridden and lived with the former. “He took the chicken carcasses to town to sell them at the meat market. He took this rooster with him- and back then he was still using the horse and wagon quite a bit. He threw it in the wagon, took the chicken in with him, and started betting people beer or something that he had a live headless chicken.”

Mike the headless chicken.
Image Credits: Miketheheadlesschicken.org

But this begs the question- how did it all happen? Incidentally, this took place because Lloyd tried to save the neck of the cockerel.[1] Apparently, his mother-in-law had come over, and she loved roast chicken neck. Being a dutiful son-in-law, Olsen did try to save a major part of the neck, but his ax then missed out on the jugular vein. In fact, Mike didn’t even have to lose out on an ear and his brain stem.

According to Wayne J. Kuenzel, this miracle took place due to Mike’s skeletal shape. Since the skull of a cockerel does include two huge holes to protect the eyes, the brain fits snugly. This does mean that if one were to lop off the top bit, a major portion of the brain would survive. “Because the brain is at that angle, you still have the functional part that’s so critical for survival intact.” To put it simply, Mike was able to perform all of his basic motor functions. How? Well, it was simply due to the positioning of his cerebellum. 

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Mike Was Just Too Stubborn To Give Up

Hilariously, Mike was completely unperturbed by his whole state. So much so that Olsen decided to take him on a tour around the country. The chicken even got its own feature in Life and Time Magazine. Other accolades followed- like the Guinness Book of Records.

John Lloyd and John Mitchinson state, in their “The Book of General Ignorance”- “At the height of his fame, Mike was making $4,500 a month, and was valued at $10,000.[2] His success resulted in a wave of copycat chicken beheadings, though none of the unfortunate victims lived for more than a day or two.” One has to assume that Mike had no clue about what was happening. After all, such a caricature can be quite offensive for many. Interestingly, they couldn’t find Mike’s head- Olsen’s cat ran away with it. 

Clara and Lloyd Olsen
Image Credits: Walters Family

How did the tour begin? Not surprisingly, in a small village like Fruita, word spreads fast. Soon, Olsen found a sideshow promoter willing to finance him. Waters mentioned, “Back then in the 1940s, they had a small farm and were struggling. Lloyd said, ‘What the hell- we might as well.’” The farmer and his headless cockerel first went to the University of Utah. There, the chicken was subjected to a multitude of tests. In fact, several scientists at the university even removed the heads of other chickens. This was all due to the idea of replicating the miracle. In 1947, the chicken finally died in Phoenix- almost two months after it lost its head. Waters mentioned, “That’s where it died- in Phoenix.”

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The Curious Case Of The Chicken Who Didn’t Die

For those with a scientific bend of mind, the concept of a headless chicken can be quite exciting. After all, even with the most humane method of execution, the hen would still squirm around. Kuenzel stated, “The minute you separate the brain from the neck, just like in humans, you’re going to get tremendous movement of the limbs.” So, if something ends up looking panicky- it actually is the firing of postmortem nerves. At this point in time, the cockerel doesn’t feel any pain. A severed somatosensory cortex is a reason for this. 

For the readers, you don’t need to feel sad for Mike. The chicken enjoyed quite a popular life later.[3] According to the official Mike the Headless Chicken website (yes, he has a website), Mike weighed 8 pounds in 1947- after weighing 2.5 pounds in 1945. After his death, Olsen gave an interview where he mentioned, “Mike was a robust chicken- a fine specimen of a chicken except for not having a head.” 

70 years down the line, Colorado still celebrates Mike. Every third weekend in May, the locals organize a festival. The Mike the Headless Chicken Festival is one where people enjoy music, food, and contests. And if you meet someone who knew Mike- they would tell you he would want that. After his death, Mike’s carcass was taken to the University of Utah again. But this time, he went through a complete autopsy. Scientists then discovered that he had a blood clot in his neck that prevented him from bleeding to death.

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  1. The chicken that lived for 18 months without a head.” BBC. September 10, 2015.
  2. Meet Miracle Mike, the Chicken Who Lived for 18 Months Without His Head.” Scientific American. Bec Crew. September 26, 2014
  3. Here’s Why a Chicken Can Live Without Its Head.” Modern Farmer. Rebecca Katzman. August 11, 2014.