Over the last 100 years, thousands of birds have flown to their death over a small strip of land in Jatinga, India. In a town of only 2,500 people, this bizarre Bermuda Triangle of avian death remains largely unexplained, despite studies by India’s most prestigious ornithologists.
After monsoon season, usually in September and October and only occurring on dark moonless nights, 44 species of bird in Jatinga suddenly become disturbed between the hours of 6 and 9:30 p.m. Becoming strangely disoriented, the birds plunge toward the torches and lights of the cities. However, the term “suicide” is a misnomer for a couple of reasons.
While birds have been known to occasionally plunge to their deaths (though almost certainly not intentionally), usually it is the villagers in Jatinga who do the actual killing. Believing them to be “spirits flying from the sky to terrorize them,” the villagers took to capturing the birds with bamboo poles and beating them to death.
Despite the danger and the repeat performances every year, the birds continue to fly to their death in this small area of 1,500 meters by 200 meters. A number of theories have been proposed, one suggesting that a combination of high altitude, high winds, and fog leads disorients the birds and they are attracted to the light of the village (bright light itself has been known to disorient birds) as a source of flight stabilization. Another theory suggests that the weather of the region leads to “changes in the magnetic qualities of the underground water” causing the birds’ disoriented state.
Wildlife and bird societies in India have gone to the village to educate them about the phenomenon in an attempt to stop the mass killings of the birds. Since then bird deaths have decreased by 40 percent. Government officials in Assam hope to use the phenomenon to attract tourists to the small city, and some work has gone into creating accommodations for visitors in Jatinga.
The phenomenon is covered in detail in the book Birds of Assam by ornithologist Dr Anwaruddin Choudhury.
Because of its remoteness, Jatinga has few visitors from the outside world, except for two crucial months - August and September. Those are the months when a curious and unexplained phenomenon envelops the area, a phenomenon that has now become the intense focus of international scientific attention.
The phenomenon, popularly referred to as the "bird mystery of Jatinga", has so far baffled scientists the world over and not without good reason since it has not occurred anywhere else in the world. During the moonless nights of August and September every year, hundreds of birds converge on Jatinga, drawn, quite literally, like moths to a flame. The villagers hang lantern lights on poles and the birds display an irresistable attraction for them.
But exactly why the phenomenon takes place is an unexplained mystery that is unique to Jatinga alone. In some parts of the world, people have been known to lay bright lights in the path of migrating birds and capture some in this manner. But Jatinga is different. For one, these are no migrating birds. Studies have established that all the species of birds caught at Jatinga are local ones living within 10 or 15 kilometres of the village.
What is puzzling is that almost all the birds are diurnal birds that are active by day and never move out of their nests at night. Studies have also established that whatever the mysterious force that compels the birds to plunge like lemmings to their death, it is a force that operates only at Jatinga and only on certain nights in August and September when a series of conditions are in force. There is, in fact, a village just two kilometres north of Jatinga which is completely ignored by the birds though villagers have tried to lure them by lights on numerous occasions.
Surprisingly, the phenomenon has gone virtually unnoticed till only recently though reports of the mysterious birds of Jatinga first surfaced towards the end of the last century. Inhabitants of Jatinga recall their ancestors describing how a small settlement of Naga tribals lived in the area then. One moonless night, they set out with lighted flares to search for a missing buffalo. No sooner had they reached the Jatinga ridge when birds swoopfed down on them from the darkness.
Terrified, the superstitious Nagas fled believing them to be evil spirits. They left the area and some years later, a group of Jantia tribals came looking for a place to settle. The Nagas pointed them in the direction of the ridge. The Jantias, however, were mainly Christian converts and faith in their new religion overcame superstitious beliefs.
But even after Gee's book was published, the Jatinga mystery remained outside any serious research efforts. It was only in 1977 that Dr Sudhin Sengupta, an expert on bird behaviour from the Zoological Survey of India went to Jatinga and lived there between August and October. It proved an illuminating experience. "Hundreds of birds just dropped out of the sky," he says, "some even flew into my bedroom if the lights were on. All the birds were in a dazed condition. They rarely tried to escape when they were picked up and usually even the ones left alive refused food." Sengupta immediately dashed off frantic letters to leading ornithologists in Europe, America and Japan.
All the replies evinced keen interest in the mystery but nobody could offer any logical explanation for what happened. Some of them also announced their intention of coming to Jatinga to see the phenomenon but were prevented by the fact that Assam is out of bounds to foreigners.
Sengupta remained undaunted and returned to Jatinga every year since then, meticulously collecting data and carrying out various experiments. His efforts, however, have been seriously hampered by the Zoological Survey itself which has not taken any major steps to unravel the mystery or support Sengupta's research adequately enough.
But given the Indian Government's attitude, that does not seem possible. Recently, superficial and misleading reports appeared in some papers in Britain and here which talked about the "wanton destruction of birds by Jatinga inhabitants".
The reports said that the villagers killed the birds to sell to restaurants in big cities. No mention was made of the phenomenon or the mystery surrounding the birds, nor was it mentioned that Jatinga has no big city less than 200 kilometres away. The report was, however, sent to the Duke of Edinburgh, the president of the World Wildlife Fund, who wrote to Mrs Gandhi expressing concern at "the mass killings of birds in Jatinga".
This resulted in a flurry of activity and instructions went out to do something about the situation. Immediately, a seminar was held in Jatinga called "Save Jatinga Birds". Hordes of pompous officials from Gauhati and Calcutta descended on the village to read out papers and lecture the villagers. Apart from Sengupta and Phukan, none had seen the actual bird catching before, yet they read out scientific papers and quoted statistics which were at variance with the facts.
So far, however, there are no plans to set up a permanent unit where experts of different disciplines can take time to study the phenomenon in depth and come up with possible answers. Which can only mean that Jatinga will continue to remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time.