Friday, November 30, 2012

Michael, the Headless Chicken

Lloyd Olsen displays his prize chicken.
This might make a few people squeamish so be prepared to exit stage door left... promptly. For all others, this will be very fascinating.

From April 1945 to March 1947, Michael the Headless Chicken, also known as "Miracle Mike," was a Wyandotte chicken that lived for 18 months after his head had been mostly cut off. Thought by many to be a hoax, the bird's owner took him to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to establish the facts of the story. It seems when a chicken's head is cut off, they will run about and act normal for a short period of time. (My mother and father had chickens when we were kids so we knew this as a science fact.) But in Michael's case, the chicken continued to live for two years!

On September 10, 1945, farmer Lloyd Olsen of Fruita, Colorado, had his mother-in-law around for supper and was sent out to the yard by his wife to bring back a chicken. Olsen chose a five-and-a-half-month-old cockerel named Michael. The axe missed the jugular vein, leaving one ear and most of the brain stem intact. This would account for the "miracle" that followed.

Despite Olsen's botched handiwork, Mike was still able to balance on a perch and walk clumsily; he even attempted to preen and crow, although he could do neither. After the bird did not die, a surprised Mr. Olsen decided to continue to care permanently for Mike, feeding him a mixture of milk and water via an eyedropper; he was also fed small grains of corn.

Michael, the headless chicken
When used to his new and unusual center of mass, Mike could easily get himself to the highest perches without falling. His crowing, though, was less impressive and consisted of a gurgling sound made in his throat, leaving him unable to crow at dawn. Mike also spent his time preening and attempting to peck for food with his neck.

Mike became an instant celebrity and was studied by medical scientists, added to the Guiness Book of Records, became the subject of a documentary and featured in Life and Time magazines. Once his fame had been established, Mike began a career of touring sideshows in the company of such other creatures such as a two-headed calf. He was also photographed for dozens of magazines and papers.

Mike was on display to the public for an admission cost of twenty five cents. At the height of his popularity, the chicken earned $4,500 per month for farmer Olsen (that's $49,500 in 2012 dollars) and was valued at $10,000. Olsen's success resulted in a wave of copycat chicken beheading, but no other chicken lived for more than a day or two.
In March 1947, at a motel in Phoenix on a stopover while traveling back home from tour, Mike started choking in the middle of the night. As the Olsens had inadvertently left their feeding and cleaning syringes at the sideshow the day before, they were unable to save Mike. Lloyd Olsen claimed that he had sold the bird off, resulting in stories of Mike still touring the country as late as 1949. Other sources say that the chicken's severed trachea could not take in enough air properly to be able to breathe; and therefore choked to death in the motel.

Photo courtesy of Life magazine.
Science Fact
It was later determined that the axe had missed the carotid artery and a clot had prevented Mike from bleeding to death. Although most of his head was severed, most of his brain stem and one ear were left on his body. Since basic functions (breathing, heart-rate, etc.) as well as most of a chicken's reflex actions are controlled by the brain stem, Mike was able to remain quite healthy. This is a good example of central motor generators enabling basic homeostatic functions to be carried out in the absence of the cerebral cortex.

Mike the Headless Chicken is now an institution in Fruita, Colorado, with an annual "Mike the Headless Chicken Day," the third weekend of May, starting in 1999. Events held include the "5K Run Like a Headless Chicken Race," the ever-popular egg toss, "Pin the Head on the Chicken," the "Chicken Cluck-Off," and "Chicken Bingo" in which chicken droppings on a numbered grid choose the numbers. If you live in or near Colorado, this might be one event you want to check out next month.