Turkey/Cat Video

Wild turkeys occasionally do goofy things, and when someone captures that behavior on video, I sometimes get contacted to try to make sense of it all. This happened last week, when a video of a flock of turkeys walking in a circle in the middle of the street around a dead cat went viral. I was quoted in articles at a website called the Verge, as well as NPR and Fox News.

About the video- which shows a flock of more than a dozen turkeys walking slowly, clockwise, at a distance of a few meters from a road-killed cat. There are a few aspects to consider:

Why do they care about a dead cat?  My thought on this is that the behavior looks like predator inspection behavior. This is a reaction to learn about a predator that does not pose an immediate danger (as a sprinting carnivore or soaring/diving eagle might). The behavior we see in the video indicates the turkeys are attentive to the roadkill, but nervous about it (keeping their distance, and also staying in motion so that they can flee more quickly). This behavior could do a few things. They could gain additional information about this particular predator (is it sleeping, will it wake up, is it about to pounce). The inspection could ensure everyone in the flock sees it and in particular that younger birds can learn about potential danger. Finally, this kind of behavior would alert a predator that they are discovered, and that an ambush attack is unlikely to be successful. For this last possibility, it resembles mobbing behavior that is found in a variety of species.

I’ve seen somewhat similar behavior when a coyote approached a flock of turkeys. The flock was alert and alarm calling, and parted as the coyote walked through. They seemed to want to keep an eye on the predator while not getting too close.

A slightly different version of this is that the turkeys may see the dead cat as something unusual and novel in their home range. Thus it could be that they don’t start by knowing the cat is a predator (or similar enough to natural predators like bobcats), but instead are inspecting to find out the danger level of this new thing they’ve stumbled across. Functionally this would be pretty similar to what I describe above.

Why are they moving in a circle?  Probably the oddest thing about this video is not that the birds care about a dead cat, but rather the eerie sight of them walking in a circle. I think there are two parts to this. First, their movements are governed by the tension between wanting to observe the cat, but also being fearful of it, which results in remaining motion but at a relatively fixed distance from the cat. Too far, and they couldn’t see what’s going on, but a closer approach may be risky if the cat is a crouched bobcat instead of a dead housecat.

When turkeys are foraging they often spread out, but if they are just walking from place to place, they may move in single file. This follow the leader behavior may have something to do with the circling behavior as well. In particular, I think the size of this flock of turkeys was coincidentally perfect to create a perpetual circling motion of the flock. Possibly as the first bird continued the circular trajectory around the cat, it caught up to the last bird, who was just arriving to inspect the cat. The effect would be like the head of a conga line catching up and starting to follow the person at the end of the train.

I’ll note that for whatever reason, turkeys seem to have a propensity to get stuck in these circular movement loops. I’ve seen (in person and on youtube) fairly persistent circling behavior in much smaller groups of male turkeys exhibiting various forms of chasing or aggression.

How does this relate to other animal “funeral” and “mourning” behavior? This is a big topic and I’m not going to attempt to review everything here. Some birds are known to have “funerals”– mainly corvids like crows and magpies. My former labmate Teresa Iglesias studied ‘cacaphonous aggregations’ of scrub jays in response to the presence of a dead jay. In a lengthy set of experiments, she compiled evidence that the response to the dead jay is similar in some ways to the response to a predator, and that the behavior of recruiting other jays is likely related to the potential cue of risk that a dead jay provides. I don’t mean to suggest all such mourning behavior in animals falls under this hypothesis, but I do think it shares similarities with the behavior we see in the turkeys.


Happy Thanksgiving!

Yes, it’s time to worship the tasty dinosaur again. Apart from the gluttony and family time, this season usually sees me revisit my graduate research on wild turkeys. Case in point: I was recently interviewed for the pet website VetStreet for one of those ‘Things you probably don’t know about turkeys’ articles. Luckily the author had already done a little research and we were able to get beyond the “don’t they drown in the rain?” questions.

Hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday!


A correction 7 years in the making

My study of kin selection in turkeys has been used in many college classrooms across the world, and is now making its way into a number of textbooks. Given that people actually seem to be reading this paper, I’ve always regretted the glaring typo that somehow made it into the final version of the manuscript. I remember it well- sending the proof out to a few friends and colleagues to share the good news that the paper would soon be published, and Mark Hauber writing back to let me know that the inequality sign in Hamilton’s Rule was reversed (it read rB – C < 0 when it should have read rB – C > 0). I quickly fired off an email to the editors of Nature to see whether there was time to fix it, and if not, to append a correction, but at the time they did not feel the typo warranted a special correction. The paper appeared with the mistake, and for the past 7 years I’ve fielded questions about the mistake, and proactively informed colleagues about it if they contact me about the study.

Imagine my surprise when a couple of weeks ago I get an email from an editor at Nature informing me that a reader had contacted them about a typographic error in the paper, and was I aware of this! Thankfully I still had the 2005 email exchange. While there is still no formal correction, the ability to provide reader comments on archived papers now allows me to make a note about the error. I’m not sure how many people actually read the comments, but hopefully it will help. I’ll definitely leave the warning up on my publications page as well.



CCSF Talk in November

Besides teaching Intro to Evolution for the first time, I will have a few other things on my plate for this fall. The first one that’s actually been scheduled is a talk at City College of San Francisco. The CCSF Department of Biology has a long-running seminar series that is open to the public (note the fall schedule is not yet posted). The talk will be November 16, and I’ll be talking about wild turkeys instead of sage-grouse for a change. Appropriate for the week before Thanksgiving I guess!

I am hoping to arrange a local Audubon Society talk as well- I’ll post more about that as soon as I have any details. And my former colleagues at Berkeley (Sam Diaz-Muñoz, Emily DuVal, and Eileen Lacey) are threatening to write a review paper, and in the Patricelli Lab we will continue to forward on a number of sage-grouse projects. It should be enough to keep me busy!

Meeting Joe

One downside of an extended field season is missing many of the great visiting speakers that come through UC Davis. This week, the animal behavior graduate group welcomes Bernd Heinrich, a brilliant scientist and prolific author. I’ve read a couple of Bernd’s books on ravens, including Raven in Winter and Mind of the Raven, and was sad to have missed hearing more about his life and research.

However, this week I did get to meet another biologist that I have admired for a long time- Joe Hutto. Joe conducted an imprinting study of wild turkeys that I read early in my graduate career. I mentioned the book and movie adaptation in an earlier post. I recently learned that he lives in Lander, and was excited to meet up with him this spring.

As part of their month-long series of films for Earth Day, the Lander Public Library showed “My Life as a Turkey” on Thursday. After the showing, Joe got up and talked a little about the production of the film, and answered questions from the audience. I got to speak with him a little bit before and after the presentation. Joe was just as warm and thoughtful in person as he comes across in the books and movies. What a treat to finally get to meet him! We didn’t get to talk turkey very much, but I’ll be heading over to his place on Monday for a visit.

I also talked to a few people there about our sage-grouse work. The organizers of the film series were interested in having “What Females Want” (the PBS Nature show featuring our research) for next April.