Mass suicide of avian creatures is unheard of in the world. But Jatinga in Assam where birds are drawn to a doomed vortex and then perish during a specific time of November nights every year, has still eluded a scientific explanation to hordes of orinthologists
Birds and suicide! Can the pair of words go together? Specially when birds are one of the most magnificent creations of God….
But believe it or not, these magnificent creatures sometimes behave in a way that arouses not only mystery but also triggers a haze through which even veteran orinthologists have failed to fathom the reason till date.
I think most of you have got it right; I am referring to the world famous phenomenon of mass suicide of birds at Jatinga, located in a spur in the Haflong ridge of North Cachar Hills district of Assam.
Jatinga is like a junction to the roads leading to Lumding and Silchar. Besides being a place of mesmerizing natural beauty, the queer phenomenon of this suicide of birds on such a massive scale makes it a place of abiding interest for all bird watchers and lovers alike.
Although a plethora of theories abounds in the air over the mystery of the birds behaving in such an abnormal yet eerie manner, there is no clear answer to a string of questions surrounding this phenomenon.
First the timing : the air in Jatinga turns misty and foggy when the monsoon makes an official departure. A thick blanket of mist envelopes the place since late afternoon, creating a dreamy atmosphere in the hills.
Ideally, November is the crucial month when several conditions match to trigger a mass flight of birds into the vicinity of Jatinga.
Besides the fog or mist in the atmosphere, the wind must blow from south to north. If there is a slight drizzle, the nature further weaves its charm and casts a spell over the birds.
And then comes the other condition; it should be a moonless, dark night. And the time noted by a majority of orinthologists is between 7 and 10 pm.
The peculiarity as also mystery of the phenomenon is that various species of birds including migratory ones swarm to available sources of light in this area in a mad rush, as though, they have found their coveted source of food.
Curiously, most of the doomed birds hardly try to fly away after they land close to the sources of light. What happens thereafter is most important and why it happens is still a mystery.
This is as mysterious as to why the birds are lured during this particular season and time in this particular area of Assam and nowhere else in India.
The birds, having come close to light, appear dazed and disheveled, perhaps due to the trauma of the whole shocking experience.
Under circumstances not fully explained, these birds are caught in the fog and wind, get completely disoriented and seek solace in the sources of light put out by the villagers.
As they try to fly close to light, they hit against the trees or other objects and suffer grave injuries in the darkness; obviously, they die soon.
However, the gravest area of concern is discreet and indiscreet poaching by the villagers of the area. Most of the birds that hover around the place after sustaining injuries, are brought down by a vigorous swing of the bamboo poles that the poachers keep ready.
Catapults are even used to bring down the injured birds in flight as well as those perched on the trees and bushes near the light sources.
Hence, it is clear that birds actually do not commit suicide per se, they are killed. But the phenomenon of mass flight of birds towards Jatinga during moonless November nights is still an enigma.
There are several myths that dot around the place since time immemorial as to why the birds flock to embrace death; but orinthologists and other researchers have all rubbished them out.
The myths have blamed it on spooky happenings. The villagers, for generations, have held that birds fly to this stretch following a deadly pull of evil spirits that terrorise them so much that the winged creatures rush to light sources, bereft of any worry for their lives.
Various studies have been conducted to unravel the mystery behind this phenomenon. Records maintained reveal that at least 44 species of birds get routinely attracted towards the light sources.
It has also been established that they are not lured to the entire Jatinga Ridge, but only to a well-defined strip which is 1.5 km long and 200 metres wide.
Invariably, the birds travel only from the north and attempts at placing the lights on the southern side of the ridge to attract them have failed.
Another interesting fact revealed so far is that hardly any long distance migratory bird travels to get trapped in the light sources. The victims are resident birds of the adjacent villages and hill slopes.
Among hundreds of birds which are found to perish here include some rare species like Pond Heron, Kingfisher, Tiger Bittern, Black Bittern, Little Egret etc.
There is also a corelation, studies have shown, between the Jatinga phenomenon and the breeding period of the birds. Other than that, heavy rainfall, flood and submergence of the natural habitats may lead to migration of the birds to Jatinga.
During 1988, the year that witnessed unprecedented floods in Assam, a comparatively huge flock of birds was observed to have crowded at Jatinga. Actually, the place falls on the route of the local migratory birds.
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All these conditions, it has been observed, somehow or the other, are believed to be prime drivers behind the phenomenon.
A similar sort of incident occurs at a place in Phillipines during as identical weather conditions as in Jatinga. In that place, on windy, foggy, moonless nights, birds that travel to light sources, are trapped by the locals, an event they term as Twang. However, the loss or tragic death of birds does not happen in such a wide scale in Phillipines as in Jatinga.
While the conservationists and environmentalists are still at a loss to decisively conclude about the strange behavior of the winged creatures, that heedless poaching of the doomed birds during this period has been affecting avian biodiversity, goes without saying.
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The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world