A bunch of turkeys circle a dead cat. WHY?

The Verge describes this video, showing a bunch of turkeys (there must be a formal name for such a group) circling a dead cat in the middle of the road, somewhere near Boston. Why are they doing this?

The Verge suggests two explanations, neither of which I find all that convincing. But go to the link and see for yourself. Whatever is happening, it’s plenty weird.

h/t: John


  1. Todd Morgan
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    birds are evil.

  2. J.Baldwin
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    It’s clearly a religious ritual. The evolutionary roots of religion discovered…in turkeys.

    • Christopher Bonds
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Beat me to it.

      • Merilee
        Posted March 2, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Me,too. It’s coo coo voo doo.

  3. Janet
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Completely spookie!!!

  4. stephajl
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Poor kitty! RIP.

    The collective noun for a group of turkeys is flock or rafter; a group of wild turkeys can be called a rafter or a gang.

    (This is the strangest thing I’ve seen this week — and it has been a surpassingly weird week).

  5. busterggi
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Mildly disturbing though it may help me decide what to give my cats tonight.

  6. nickswearsky
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    I’d say “following the tail” mixed with a bit of wariness of the cat, which they trat as “predator-like.” Oddly cool, tho.

    • nickswearsky
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      “treat” as “predator-like.”

  7. steve oberski
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s called a Trump of Turkeys.

  8. Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    I have witnessed Canada geese in large numbers, perhaps one hundred, form a near-perfect half circle around a fox standing at a forest edge. What was most interesting is that all of the geese quit feeding and walked towards the fox until they were maybe twenty to thirty feet away. I assume they were signaling the fox. They were not going to be ambushed. The fox stood its ground, never attacked, and quietly slipped back into the woods.

  9. Siggy in CR
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    That’s really strange. But turkeys seem to be somewhat aware of death. I have chickens and used to have turkeys as well. One afternoon I went behind the house to find the turkeys gathered around a dead rooster. No idea how the rooster got killed, though we suspected that he got into a fight with our other rooster and it ended in a fatality. The chickens didn’t seem to care whatsoever. But the turkeys spent the better part of an hour checking out the dead rooster on the ground. It was unusual to say the least.

    • Posted March 3, 2017 at 2:55 am | Permalink

      Ducks as well. Chickens are beheaded away from sight to avoid alarming any of the other farm animals, but the chickens do gather to fight over the guts while the carcass of their former colleague is being plucked and cleaned.

      Meanwhile, the ducks stand their distance and watch all this intently, almost with an air of disgust and accusation (yes, probably my imagination).

      From that point on, they resist all efforts to approach them and became uncatchable. To get them into the oven literally requires a “sniper” with a telescopic sighted rifle operating under cover.

      On another note, the pet duck learned to chase away the neighbour’s chickens from stealing food just by watching me do it once or twice.

      • Siggy in CR
        Posted March 3, 2017 at 6:41 am | Permalink

        I wonder how much the domestication process affects the intelligence of certain animals. Chickens have been so thoroughly bred for certain physical and behavioral characteristics that I’ve suspected that production breeds might be genetically disposed to being somewhat dim-witted. I remember reading something about how the domestication process has caused a significant reduction in brain mass in dogs compared to wolves.

        • Posted March 3, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

          I get the impression we bred (perhaps inadvertently) chickens for stupidity too.

      • busterggi
        Posted March 3, 2017 at 8:33 am | Permalink

        “but the chickens do gather to fight over the guts while the carcass of their former colleague is being plucked and cleaned.”

        Ah, reminds me of my D&D days!

  10. veroxitatis
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    yes but this is just a snapshot in time. It would be interesting (and essential for any sort of analysis)to know how the “procession” started and ended.

  11. Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    It’s defense. They will do the same to live cats (we had one stupid one who thought he’d take on a flock, but all our other cats ran away from the flocks). It happened to our young yellow Lab in the upper field. The dog has this invisible line of defense around the house, and anything that is not hers, like deer, coons, porcupines, bears, are kept out. But the turkeys made a ring around her and she ran in fear back to the house. It’s intimidating, it keeps the predator in sight. The ring can move with the predator. If there are baby turkeys with the flock, they are outside the ring with one or two adults guarding them.

    Turkeys can be pretty bad. We will send out the dog to chase a stupid cat away from a flock. I suspect that the turkeys in your video can’t tell the difference between a live predator and a hapless dead cat. Or at least they aren’t going to take a chance on it jumping up and attacking them.

    • eric
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:00 pm | Permalink


      Reminds me of a bit when you’re watching a horror movie, and you scream at the TV telling the victims to keep the shotgun trained on the “dead” serial killer’s body. 🙂

    • Lauren
      Posted March 3, 2017 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      When I kept a flock of 20+ guineas, i once saw them circle a living coyote similar to what the turkeys are doing. The birds marched the coyote out of the pasture. Seen them react this way to armadillos as well.

      My best guess is the turkeys didn’t recognize the cat was dead so had marshaled their defense against the perceived threat.

  12. mikeyc
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    My brother in law hunts turkeys. He says they have a very powerful “follow the leader” behavior when groups of them are moving on the ground. You often see them walking in loose columns following one or two leaders. We don’t know how long this had been going on or how long it did after the video was shot but perhaps what’s going on here is it is a circle of birds that hasn’t yet figured out they are moving in a circle – they are following the bird directly in front of them.

  13. Ken Phelps
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Maybe they’re Louden Wainwright III fans.

    Yeah, I know, skunk. But allowing for some artistic license….

    • barn owl
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Pepe Le Pew often mistook a black cat for “la belle femme skunk fatale,” so perhaps not far off? 😉

      • grasshopper
        Posted March 2, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        I always disliked Pepe Le Pew and his style of “courtship”. As a child I considered it the height of bad manners to persist in the face of such disinclination to engage, not yet being au fait with sexual harassment.
        Was the SF short story The Ruum based on the inexorable nature Pepe’s character? Probably not, but both first appeared close in time, Pepe in 1945, The Ruum in 1953.

        • barn owl
          Posted March 2, 2017 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

          Pepe also says things that could be construed as sexual innuendo, such as “let me plant my carrot in your garden of love.” I always felt sorry for the cat.

  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    The reasons offered on the linked site seemed pretty reasonable to me, and both could be true. Keep the predator in sight, let the predator know that you know they are there so don’t try anything. And follow the one in front of you in a social herd.

    • Craw
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      This is quite implausible to me. Would a *live* cat be intimidated? Has anyone ever seen turkeys do this in presence of a live threat?

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink


        Did you not read comments 8. [Glen Butler] & 11. [Andree] above?

        • Craw
          Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          I could ask, Did you not read comment 16? Could there be alternative explanations, or is your preferred one certain?
          Like Coyne I find this implausible. Not impossible, implausible.

          Likening a docile species like turkeys to an aggressive one like Canada Geese isn’t that compelling. And CGs are quite aggressive, and injure many people and animals each year.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

            I was specifically replying to your question: “Has anyone ever seen turkeys do this in presence of a live threat?”

            TBH I had not grokked that 8 involved Canada geese, but 11 [a live fox threat & turkeys] does seem to meet your criteria! Also gangs of wild turkeys are not that docile & I’ve done a little googling & from that I gather that large male toms will face off small/medium-sized predators in self defence. Hens will protect their poults versus small predators such as owls going after the young.

            I don’t know enough about turkeys to tell if the ones in the video are all hens or if there are males/male toms among them – that might be useful to know I suppose.

          • Mark Sturtevant
            Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

            I don’t think the turkey behavior is particularly aggressive. I will just venture that it could be ‘we see you and so we are not afraid of you’ behavior.

            • jeffery
              Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

              Anyone who’s raised turkeys knows that, once most “Toms” got to a certain age, you ALWAYS had to either eat them or pen them up, as they got too aggressive, “charging” and pecking at everybody (this can get serious if you’ve got little kids around). Once I “confronted” a particularly-troublesome one of these “fighters” with a heavy glove on: when it would try to peck me, I’d slap it upside its head. After about 10 minutes of this, it was staggering from side to side, yet was STILL trying to come after me!

  15. dave eberth
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Maybe NatGeo has some grant money it can spare to round up some republicans and start testing hypotheses.

    • Posted March 2, 2017 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      I thought that’s what the Republicans are doing already, running in circles around a dead carcass called democracy.

  16. Gabe McNett
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I’d guess it’s the consequence of misplaced mating behavior that had a positive feedback effect on other females. So the cat itself is not important. I’ve seen videos of turkeys do this around trees, for example, and heard stories of them circling nothing at all. But I think circling is part of the female’s mating repertoire. Females hang out in groups and eventually circle males with whom they’ve chosen to mate. This looks like a bunch of females, and the breeding season is nearing, especially with the early spring. So one hypothesis is that an increasing level of a hormone that helps stimulate behavior associated with mating rituals triggered a simple, misplaced “circle” from one or very few females. Like a migrating bird that utters a mating song on its wintering ground as spring approaches, and well before it ever has a territory. This misplaced behavior from one or few females had a positive feedback on other females, causing them to circle as well. This video is showing a quirky end result.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      That is what I thought. It just happens to be a dead cat. It could be an old bag of unused diapers. Or an abandoned tire. Or, as you indicate, a tree.

    • Craw
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      Could the cat, which looks to have been hit and hence leaking, be emitting a chemical? Pheromones. Like pears can ripen apples …?

      • grasshopper
        Posted March 2, 2017 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

        Eau-de-deliquescence of dead cat?

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      This too seems possible to me. It could have started with maybe a couple investigating the cat (this to get it started where it did), and then it turned into this whole other instinctive thing that we see here.

  17. Michael Morenko
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    “(there must be a formal name for such a group)” I think in this case they would be called a “rotisserie of turkeys”

    • busterggi
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:45 pm | Permalink


    • Craw
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

      A Thanksgiving of turkeys.

  18. Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Do turkeys eat insects? If so, an instinct to gather around animal corpses would be natural, if ghoulish.

  19. josh
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    One possibility is that dead mammals attract insects which turkeys will eat possibly.

    • josh
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      OK, I watched the video after I posted the above comment and I am changing my comment to that is bizarre.

  20. Posted March 2, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know about wild turkeys, but my folks used to raise domestic turkeys and I was led to believe that turkeys are very dumb. As I recall, I was told that a turkey could stand out in the rain and drown by looking up with its’ mouth open. Don’t know if that’s true or not.

    • Siggy in CR
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      I’m not so sure about that. It seems to me that they are a lot smarter than chickens. Though mine were more wild type, at least in coloration.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      I doubt that they are very dumb, only they are as smart as they need to be.

  21. Posted March 2, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to click the “follow comments” thing.

  22. Michael Fisher
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    Do Australian brushturkeys* circle the other way? 🙂

    Here’s a SINGLE turkey circling a gravestone: http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/Turkey-Circles-Headstone-Again-and-Again-233620701.html

    * yeah I know not closely related to the North American birdie

    • rickflick
      Posted March 2, 2017 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      It seems to be following itself.

      • Merilee
        Posted March 2, 2017 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        Chasing its tail like a cat.

  23. tubby
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Clearly it’s because it’s hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys.

  24. Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    I read the explanations and didn’t find them convincing. I mean, what about Erdogan?

    On a more serious note, the defense mechanism of encircling a predator is plausible. Opposite of being smart, they may not “know” the cat is dead.

  25. Craw
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Some sort of pheromone coming from the smashed up cat’s innards?

  26. Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    The turkeys mistakenly think they are turkey vultures.

  27. Parker
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Maybe they’re all playing the “who’s going to try and eat this thing first” game?

  28. Billy Bl.
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Is Boston anywhere near Salem?

  29. Jim Knight
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    I have read that turkeys will surround snakes in a similar fashion, so
    perhaps this is a defense against potentially dangerous animals, an antipredator defense mechanism…?

  30. Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    Turkeys are very trainable. In Sonoma County (where I live), we have lots of wild turkeys that roam the vineyards and town streets. My husband witnessed a similar thing happen, but with a Buddha temple. The temple was circular and had niches at the cardinal directions. Each niche had had a mirror. The turkeys were attracted to the mirrors, of course. But after a few years, the mirrors broke or fell off. There was nothing in the stone niche to keep them coming back, but come back they did. And they would visit each niche, in a nice neat row, around the Buddha, and then leave. I’ve seen a flock of wild turkey (a group of domestic turkeys is called a gang), about 20 of ’em, walk down a city street, all together. They stopped at the intersection. Waited for the green light, and then crossed the street. All stayed in the crosswalk and continued down the sidewalk on the other side. They were very orderly because they had to be. I’m sure they saw tons of their mates die in the streets. I have no idea why they are circling the cat in this video, but keep in mind that there might be some other event(s) these turkeys have witnessed that prompt them to behave the way they are (other than what we might imagine *why* they are doing it). Did that make sense?

  31. Michael Waterhouse
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    If they didn’t ‘know’ the cat was dead that circling could be a good defensive technique.
    Cats chase movement but if there is a continuous stream of circular movement the cat couldn’t pick a target or have a distinct target presented to its brain circuits.
    I imagine it would be quite discombobulating.

    Finding a clean end move might be problem though. Maybe they reach a consensus and disperse by agreement.

  32. Dave137
    Posted March 2, 2017 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    If there’s an alpha, maybe he was just following a fellow in front: and a circle emerged.

    They’re little dinosaurs.

  33. HaggisForBrains
    Posted March 3, 2017 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    This video, Ganster Turkeys Attack Cat is one of the links at the end of the posted video, and may give a clue.

  34. allison
    Posted March 3, 2017 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    This is another sign that we are “living inside a simulated universe”. Somewhere online on Wednesday I read an article (sorry, don’t remember where) stating that some people believe that the apparent increasing frequency with which we are witnessing strange or unexpected events signifies that we are probably living inside a simulated universe whose controllers are turning up the strange factor in order to see how we respond. The article cited such events as the Cubs winning the World Series, the Falcons blowing a 25-point third-quarter lead to lose the Super Bowl, record warmth and low snowfall, and the big one – the Presidency of Donald Trump.

  35. Posted March 3, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I’d go with defense, but my grasp of this sort of thing is minimal. (I’ve read a few books on bird ethology and such.)

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