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Why on Earth did those Turkeys Circle a Dead Cat? Scientists Explain

The turkeys are less pagan and more paranoid

 


A Boston man named Davis was on his way to work Monday when he saw a preternatural ritual: 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 went viral. 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 attributed 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.

Turkeys' instinct to follow the flock probably compounded the circling. 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. These birds chase after the tails of those in front of them, as a way to keep a flock together.

But he also points out that not so long ago, seeing a single wild turkey in Massachusetts, not to mention several in a circle, would have been surprising.

Wild turkeys circling a dead cat in the middle of the road

In precolonial North America, it's thought at at least 10 million wild turkeys roamed the continent. But European colonies brought with them unchecked hunting and habitat loss, which decimated turkey numbers. By the late 1700s, wild turkeys were effectively extirpated from New England, and by 1874, Hughes says that wild turkeys were extinct in Massachusetts.

The turkey's decline reached its peak in the 1930s, when the U.S. population of turkeys had fallen to about 200,000 individuals, 2 percent of its precolonial level.

In 1918, the last known Carolina parakeet died in Ohio's Cincinnati Zoo, four years after the last known passenger pigeon died in the very same cage. So people at the time wanted to avoid the loss of another avian species.

In response, a coalition of sportsmen, conservationists, and state and federal wildlife officials have worked for decades to boost turkey numbers, largely through hunting regulations, a decline in subsistence hunting, and the trap-and-transfer of wild turkeys to new habitats.

 

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