Jonathan Davis, the Randolph, Mass., account manager who posted the video, said the behavior had been going on for at least a minute before he started filming.
“I don’t know how long it continued,” Davis said. “I had to go to work.”
So what the gobble gobble is going on here? Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first.
Turkeys don’t eat dead animals, so that’s out, said Geoff LeBaron, the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count director.
“Turkeys aren’t the brightest of birds,” LeBaron said. “I suspect they recognize the cat as a potential predator, and are circling out of curiosity or wariness, just to make sure it stays dead.”
And it’s also not unheard of for the birds to circle objects. Take this video of three turkeys running laps around a tree — not in the middle of the woods, mind you, but between a fire hydrant and a set of storage pods. (High-five to YouTuber Colin Myers for setting that video to the theme music from “The Benny Hill Show.”)
“My guess is that the turkeys were curious about the cat, but also cautious, and that the circling behavior was the balance resulting from those two behaviors,” said Tom Hughes, a wildlife biologist who is director of research and science for the National Wild Turkey Federation. “They’ve been known to circle snakes this way, too.”
Kaeli Swift, a PhD candidate studying the death practices of crows at the University of Washington, said it would be a stretch to ascribe her subjects’ rituals to turkeys.
“The tricky thing is, with the exception of crows and gulls, any account of how birds specifically respond to death are all fairly anecdotal,” Swift said. “It’s a lot of stuff like this turkey video where we say, ‘One time a duck stood around its dead mate for an hour.’ And then people sort of extrapolate that to say, ‘Okay, so this is what ducks do.’ Which may or may not be true.”
Of the species that have received more rigorous attention, Swift said gulls tend to vacate the area when they’re confronted with a dead comrade. Pigeons, on the other hand, don’t appear to even acknowledge death. In fact, Swift has documented pigeons eating a sandwich squished on the road mere inches away from the carcass of a flock-mate who had just been hit by a car.
And then there are crows. In a paper published in Animal Behaviour in 2015, Swift showed that crows not only acknowledge when another crow dies, but that they can learn from it. The birds in her study came to associate people seen handling dead crows with danger and even showed signs of remembering this information up to six weeks later.
Swift said she doubts any of this is relevant to the turkey video, however — especially given that the turkeys were interacting with a dead cat and not a member of their own species.
As for the circling, Swift said it might just be that all the birds wanted to keep the same distance from the object of interest. But then perhaps one of the birds got spooked and decided to move forward, which caused the bird in front of it to move forward, and the bird in front of it, and on and on.
In other words, what looks like a highly ritualized turkey seance may be nothing more than a case of turkey dominoes.