Fruita’s Favorite Feathered Friend

Pat Martin
Grand Junction, Colo.+
Pat MartinCreated by sculptor Lyle Nichols, this memorial to "Mike the Headless Chicken" occupies a prominent corner on Main Street in Fruita, Colo.

A veritable legend in the Grand Valley of Colorado’s Western Slope, “Mike the Headless Chicken” is honored in his hometown of Fruita with the annual “Mike the Headless Chicken” weekend celebration of fun unlike anything in the country. The event takes place this year on Friday May 15, and Saturday May 16.

It seems Mike was an average young Wyandotte rooster whose number came up one Sunday in 1945, when he was chosen to provide Sunday dinner for the Lloyd and Clara Olsen family. In an effort to please his mother-in-law, whose favorite piece of fried chicken was the neck, farmer Olsen carefully aimed his hatchet blow to leave as much neck as possible on the body.

Incredulously, Mike not only got up and wobbled around for a few minutes after being decapitated (not a totally uncommon occurrence) but the bird proceeded to fluff up his feathers and go about his barnyard business as though nothing had happened. He continued to go through the motions of pecking for food, preening his feathers and tucking his “head” under his wing when he slept. He even attempted to crow, but only a pathetic gurgle came out.

Olsen decided to spare Mike to see how long he might live without a head. When Mike was still alive the next morning, Olsen figured he might be more valuable as an oddity than as a chicken dinner, so he began dropping grain and water into Mike’s gullet opening with an eyedropper. And when the rooster was still alive a whole week later, Olsen carted him off to the University of Utah so incredulous scientists there could study him. They determined that Mike was alive because the ax had left the brain stem intact.

Envisioning fame and fortune, Olsen hired a manager and the two of them began a whirlwind tour of the U.S., where the curious could view Mike up close for 25 cents. Photo shoots with Life and Time magazines soon ensued, and scientists around the country were eager to examine the hapless, headless chicken. Mike was also assured a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records.

All this time – some reports claim seven years, others much fewer – Mike grew and thrived, maturing into a fine specimen of a chicken, seemingly unbothered by the lack of a head. Several witnesses who still live in the area remember the phenomenon quite well.

The notorious life of Mike the Headless Chicken ended tragically one night in a motel on the way home from a tour of the Southwest. The Olsens heard Mike choking in the night but couldn’t find the eyedropper to clear his esophagus. Everyone who knew of him was greatly saddened by his demise. His dogged determination to live was an inspiration to all, and each year in May, the town of Fruita, Colorado, is proud to honor the brave fowl with their “Mike the Headless Chicken” celebration.

Events include such things as a 5K Run Like a Headless Chicken race, egg tosses, chicken bingo, a chicken costume parade featuring family pets dressed as chickens, and, of course, chicken for lunch. The celebration has even spawned a cookbook chock-full of chicken recipes, which is a perennial hit with the crowd.

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