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Dear God, Why Are These Turkeys Circling a Dead Cat?

We talked to some of the best minds in ornithology about that horrifying turkey tweet.

by VICE Staff
Mar 2 2017, 9:25pm

Maybe you, like much of America, started your day by checking social media and discovering that Twitter user @TheReal_JDavis had stumbled upon what seems to be a scene from the unreleased sequel to The Witch. In his video, about 20 plump turkeys are holding some sort of vigil by walking in a circle around a freshly-killed cat, right in the middle of an idyllic residential street.

@TheReal_JDavis guesses that the turkeys are trying to "give this cat its 10th life." I can see why. The turkeys are moving at a deliberate-but-not-quick-pace, just right for some kind of Eyes Wide Shut ceremony. And why hold a ceremony around a dead cat, unless it's a resurrection ceremony? "Bro, this is wild," he says in the video.

So what the hell are they actually doing? "They just look like they're alarmed by the dead animal—cat or whatever it is—in the street," according to Dr. Thomas Coombs-Hahn, a University of California Davis professor of biology who focuses on the responses of birds to unpredictable events in the environment. But Coombs-Hahn told me he's "not sure why they're circling it."

Harvard bird cognition expert Irene Pepperberg (who mostly studies parrots), told me that, while they're more likely to do it around stuff like rocks and trees, "it's not totally uncommon for turkeys to circle things."

According to Daniel A Cristol, an ornithologist at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, the whole thing was "very odd."

"They are following a leader, which is normal, but for some reason the leader is circling around the dead cat," Cristol wrote in an email. He could only offer speculation. One possible theory he offered was that the leader was literally keeping an eye on the cat. "Birds see out of only one eye for most of their visual field, so if they are walking and keeping something in view they will walk in a circle."

Cristol called it an emergent phenomenon—a system in which small units of life give way to some larger entity. In this case, we have "an emergent phenomenon that looks like some weird religious ceremony," Cristal told me.

So until someone funds a project that delivers dead cats to ornithology researchers so they can perform controlled experiments, calling this a weird emergent phenomenon is probably the best explanation we're going to get.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.