London: Seventy years ago, a farmer beheaded a chicken in Colorado, and it refused to die. Mike, as the bird became known, survived for 18 months and became famous. On 10 September 1945 Lloyd Olsen and his wife Clara were killing chickens, on their farm in Fruita, Colorado. Olsen would decapitate the birds, his wife would clean them up. But one of the 40 or 50 animals that went under Olsen’s hatchet that day didn’t behave like the rest.
“They got down to the end and had one who was still alive, up and walking around,” says the couple’s great-grandson, Troy Waters, himself a farmer in Fruita. The chicken kicked and ran, and didn’t stop.
The chicken known as ‘Mike’ was fed with liquid food and water that the Olsens dropped directly into his oesophagus. Another vital bodily function they helped with was clearing mucus from his throat. They fed him with a dropper, and cleared his throat with a syringe.
The night Mike died, they were woken in their motel room by the sound of the bird choking. When they looked for the syringe they realised they had left it at the sideshow, and before they could find an alternative, Mike suffocated.
“For years he would claim he had sold [the chicken] to a guy in the sideshow circuit,” Waters says, before pausing. “It wasn’t until, well, a few years before he died that he finally admitted to me one night that it died on him. I think he didn’t ever want to admit he screwed up and let the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs die on him.”
Olsen would never tell what he did with the dead bird. “I’m willing to bet he got flipped out in the desert somewhere between here and Phoenix, on the side of the road, probably eaten by coyotes,” Waters says.
But by any measure Mike, bred as a fryer chicken, had a good innings. How had he been able to survive for so long?
The thing that surprises Dr Tom Smulders, a chicken expert at the Centre for Behaviour and Evolution at Newcastle University, is that he did not bleed to death. The fact that he was able to continue functioning without a head he finds easier to explain.
For a human to lose his or her head would involve an almost total loss of the brain. For a chicken, it’s rather different.
“You’d be amazed how little brain there is in the front of the head of a chicken,” says Smulders.
It is mostly concentrated at the back of the skull, behind the eyes, he explains.
Reports indicate that Mike’s beak, face, eyes and an ear were removed with the hatchet blow. But Smulders estimates that up to 80% of his brain by mass – and almost everything that controls the chicken’s body, including heart rate, breathing, hunger and digestion – remained untouched.
It was suggested at the time that Mike survived the blow because part or all of the brain stem remained attached to his body. Since then science has evolved, and what was then called the brain stem has been found to be part of the brain proper.