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An ode to Mike, the headless chicken

(This post amuses me. This is the strangest juxtaposition of research papers and topics I've written about. You'll see.)

An ode to Mike, by Bradley Voytek

There once was a farmer from Fruita
Whose chicken caused quite a hoopla.
     For what happened next,
     Made farmer Olsen quite perplexed!
And as for the chicken, no "clucks", just some "ooh-aahs".

For that farmer had wanted a snack.
So he went and grabbed his old axe.
     He took a big swing,
     And said, "this might sting".
And for Mike the Chicken there was no turning back...

Bradley Voytek Neuroscience Mike the Headless Chicken

I first learned about poor Mike the Headless Chicken from Aubrey Gilbert, my neuroanatomy TA. Aubrey used to run these semi-annual lectures for the Berkeley Cognitive Science Student Association called "Feel Dead Brains". After Aubrey graduated, I took over these events and had the pleasure of doing lots of lectures for the CSSA.

And although Mike never really made the final cut in my version of the Feel Dead Brains lectures, he always had a special place in my heart.

To give a bit of a background about Mike, he was just a chicken raised on a farm by Lloyd Olsen. Olsen went out to behead Mike one day, but cut slightly higher on the neck then he should have. Like my brilliant limerick above says, instead of running around like a chicken with its head cut off, and then dying like normal, Mike just kept on running around. According to Wikipedia:
The axe missed the jugular vein, leaving one ear and most of the brain stem intact. 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. 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.

As far as anyone can tell, Mike's brain stem was still intact after his decapitation. As the Dick et al. paper linked to below discusses, the brain stem contains a host of important pontine nuclei that control respiration and heart rate. Basically, the brain stem controls the functions vital for life. And although Mike wouldn't be writing any sonnets (or limericks), his basic life functions were still intact. As long as farmer Lloyd kept feeding him, Mike could keep gurgle-clucking around.

Okay, quick anatomical lesson. Some of you may know by now that I'm a stickler for neuroanatomy. Whenever I teach neuroanatomy, I like to make sure my students have a solid understanding of the cranial nerves and their associated nuclei. The central nervous system (CNS) communicates with the peripheral nervous system (PNS) to maintain vital life functions. Most of the communication with the organs is via the tenth (of twelve) cranial nerve: the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve connects to three brain stem nuclei: the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve, the nucleus ambiguus, and the solitary nucleus.

If you've ever felt faint or passed out when having blood drawn (the "vasovagal response"), this is because of the mix of emotional stress and over-stimulation of the vagus nerve. But that's not all the vagus nerve does. So check this out: some women with spinal cord injury can no longer experience genital orgasm, because the signal from the genitalia to the brain has been cut (see my previous post about "phantom" orgasms). Well, it turns out that some of these women can experience a vagus nerve orgasm (see Komisaruk et al.). So, you know, over-stimulation of the vagus nerve isn't always a negative thing.

Awkward transition from orgasm back to the headless chicken

To this day, Mike's got quite a cult following. He's got his own website, as well as his own annual festival featuring a lawnmower race, 5k run, and the beautiful tagline:

Attending this fun, family event is a NO BRAINER

Mike's been featured in LIFE:

And had his own PBS special:

Again, according to Wikipedia (there aren't that many sources about Mr. Mike):
Once his fame had been established, Mike began a career of touring sideshows in the company of such other creatures as a two-headed calf. Mike was on display to the public for an admission cost of 25 cents. At the height of his popularity, the chicken earned US$4,500 per month ($48,000 in 2010 dollars) and was valued at $10,000. Olsen's success resulted in a wave of copycat chicken beheadings, but no other chicken lived for more than a day or two.

That's right. Let me reiterate:
"copycat chicken beheadings"

Oh humanity, your beauty and grace brings a tear to my eye ::sniff::

But clearly, there could be only one. (How AWESOME would it have been if the Kurgan just kept running around headless because the Highlander cut a little too high, by the way?! Oooh, actually, I think I've found my follow-up topic for what to do after all my zombie brain stuff.)

Sadly, Mike's reign as the headless emissary had to come to an end:

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, including the Guinness Book of World Records, 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.

There you go. Now you know the story about my favorite headless fowl. Please, no copycat beheadings though.

Dick TE, Baekey DM, Paton JF, Lindsey BG, & Morris KF (2009). Cardio-respiratory coupling depends on the pons. Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology, 168 (1-2), 76-85 PMID: 19643216
Komisaruk, B., Whipple, B., Crawford, A., Grimes, S., Liu, W., Kalnin, A., & Mosier, K. (2004). Brain activation during vaginocervical self-stimulation and orgasm in women with complete spinal cord injury: fMRI evidence of mediation by the Vagus nerves Brain Research, 1024 (1-2), 77-88 DOI: 10.1016/j.brainres.2004.07.029


  1. Dude, whenever your next "feel dead brains" lecture occurs, let me know. I will be there!

  2. @Jason: Aren't you in socal?!

    Anyway, I'll be speaking at this year's Cal Cog Sci Conference: http://cssa.berkeley.edu/ccsc10/about/speakers/

    They've got some great speakers lined up for this year's (but I can't find a current website for it, yet).

    I'll also be talking at CoSyNe next week, if you happen to go to that conference...

    Next time in LA, we should grab a beer. USC is my alma mater :)