This morning, a bizarre video went viral on Twitter: it showed over a dozen turkeys endlessly circling a dead cat in the middle of the road. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” says the guy who posted the video, @TheReal_JDavis, who’s from Boston.
Why in the world are the birds doing this? They might be performing what’s called a “predator inspection,” says Alan Krakauer, a biologist at the University of California, Davis, who studies the behavioral ecology of birds, in an email to The Verge. Sometimes, animals lower down in the food chain approach predators — a behavior that can be seen as risky, but can actually help the prey. Making the predator aware that the prey know it’s there can sometimes scare the predator away. The “inspection” also allows the prey to check how determined the predator is to attack, and can alert other animals to the danger.
Krakauer says he’s seen turkeys act in a similar way with a coyote once. Richard Buchholz, a professor of biology at the University of Mississippi, agrees: he’s also seen this kind of circling behavior in the turkey bird family, which includes chickens, pheasants, and quail. Following the tail in front of them is a way they stick together as a flock, he says.
What’s weird is that in the video the turkeys are circling a dead cat — definitely not a dangerous predator. And turkeys don’t usually eat dead animals, including dead cats, so it’s not like they’re doing some weird ritual dance before tasting their meal. What could be happening is that the turkeys are stuck in some kind of never-ending circle, with each bird following the tail in front of it. “It’s not unusual for them to get into those dances where they chase each other around,” Scott Gardner, a turkey expert with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, tells The Verge.
It’d be interesting to know how long the turkeys continued their weird ritual dance, and whether at a certain point they just got tired of it. “Maybe they are waiting to see if the cat wakes up?” Krakauer says. “Definitely amusing from a human perspective!”