The video is unnerving.
More than 15 turkeys walk in a circle — not running or distressed, but walking with intention — around a dead cat in the middle of the road.
Twitter user @TheReal_JDavis filmed the moment. “That is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says on the video. “Bro, this is wild.”
“These turkeys trying to give this cat its 10th life,” the Boston resident wrote, in a tweet that proceeded to go viral.
What, if not dark magic, was going on there?
Boston Magazine called “Massachusetts’ foremost turkey expert,” who said it was possible that the birds were trailing behind one animal who set out to investigate the corpse, and then wound up — follow-the-leader style — in a perfect circle.
Biologist Alan Krakauer, an expert on the behavioral ecology of birds, offers an explanation that ascribes a little more intention to the birds. He tells NPR it’s “most likely … predator inspection behavior.”
He explains that turkeys, when faced with an animal that might eat them, sometimes follow the risky route of actually approaching the predator. It can help signal to other turkeys in the area that there’s a threat, or help the turkeys evaluate how big of a danger the predator is.
“Or it could let the predator know the prey are aware of its presence, which might encourage the predator to move elsewhere to seek an easier meal,” he says — “a lot like a group of small songbirds mobbing a hawk or owl they have discovered.”
Or, you know, it could backfire — if the predator is a little more … conscious … than the cat in the video.
Krakauer, who also discussed the video with The Verge, continues:
“During my studies of wild turkeys I watched a coyote trot through a group of turkeys — the turkeys gave it some space but acted alert in a similar manner to this video. In that instance the coyote kept walking and the turkeys went back to their business.
“However, in this video, the dead cat ‘predator’ doesn’t get up to leave, and the turkeys appear to be kind of stuck in their pattern of behavior. Maybe they are waiting to see if the cat wakes up?”
That is, waiting to see if the dead rise, instead of ritually working to raise the dead.
Either way, we can all agree it would be alarming — for turkeys and humans alike — if that cat sprang up.
If the strange video has awakened a burning curiosity about turkey behavior, Krakauer would like to recommend the PBS Nature episode My Life as a Turkey.