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Why Did These Turkeys Circle Around a Dead Cat?

The turkeys were was less pagan and more paranoid, an expert says—and draw attention to an underappreciated conservation success.

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A Massachusetts resident on his way to work stumbled across a bizarre scene: a group of wild turkeys marching in a circle around a dead cat.

“I’ve got three dogs and four fish tanks at home... I enjoy nature, I enjoy wildlife,” says Jonathan Davis of Randolph, Massachusetts, who filmed the scene on his phone on March 2. “It’s not every day you see something like that.”

Once Davis posted his footage to Twitter, it spread like wildfire, as Davis and others noted the incident’s apparent resemblance to a ritual.

But in all likelihood, the turkeys are less pagan and more paranoid: In a phone interview with National Geographic, wildlife biologist Tom Hughes of the National Wild Turkey Federation chalked up the turkeys’ behavior to a combination of curiosity and fear.

“My guess is they are puzzled by the strange behavior of the dead or dying cat,” says Hughes, “[and wanted] to get a better look, without getting too close.” The result, he says, is a circle of turkeys—mostly females—all eyeing the potential predator’s carcass, but none of them wanting to get any closer. (Read: “Do Crows Hold Funerals for Their Dead?”)

Turkeys’ instinct to follow the flock probably compounded the circling. In an email to The Verge, University of Mississippi biologist Richard Buchholz said that he has seen similar behavior in birds of the family Phasianidae, which includes turkeys, pheasants, and chickens. In these birds, individuals chase after the tails of those in front of them, as a way...

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