Mass Bird Suicides
Every year, thousands of birds meet their death in Jatinga, a small village of around 2,500 tribal people in the Dima Hasao District of Assam in India. The event occurs at a specific time of the year, and under specific weather conditions. Though originally believed to be a mysterious case of bird suicides, ornithologists and conservationists discovered that though the birds exhibited strange behavior during this phenomenon, the actual death of many birds was brought about by villagers who killed the birds for their meat. However, though it was clear to the researchers that most birds were killed by villagers, they were utterly confused as to why such a large number of birds would arrive at Jatinga in unison and start behaving strangely at an unnatural period of the day, right after dark, when they are actually supposed to stay within the safety of their nests.
Annual Timing of the Events
Every year, after the monsoons are over, in the months of September and October, birds in Jatinga exhibit unusual behavior on certain occasions. On moonless nights, specifically between the after sunset hours of 6 pm and 9:30 pm, the birds, belonging to more than 44 species, appear to become completely disoriented. They fly in a haphazard manner and often strike objects in their way especially sources of light like floodlights of watch towers and lights in Jatinga homes and crash to the ground where they are brutally killed by the villagers. Since diurnal birds usually never exhibit any form of movements after dark and return to the safety of their nests by evening, the villagers consider such behavior to be an act of evil and that the birds are sent by demons to terrorize them. This is the justification provided by them for killing the birds.
How Long Has This Been Going On?
The mass death of birds at Jatinga has been known to happen since a long time. It was first noticed by villagers in 1905 when they were on a search for a buffalo allegedly killed by a tiger and they discovered birds behaving strangely around flaming torches. In the later years, a combination of various natural conditions and human designed artificial lighting has led to a repetition of the phenomenon year after year and continues to this date, though birds now appear in much smaller numbers. The phenomenon of bird suicides in Jatinga was brought to global attention in the 1960’s when the famous naturalist of India, Edward Pritchard Gee and the world famous ornithologist Salim Ali set out on an expedition to study the mystery of Jatinga’s birds.
Scientists studying the Jatinga bird suicide phenomenon have concluded from their studies that a perfect blend of certain conditions are required to trigger the peculiar behavior of the birds. A moonless night, steady winds blowing in from the south, a light rainfall and spherical torch lights penetrating the mystic environment, creating dawn-like situation. Under such conditions, birds suddenly appear out of nowhere, flying haywire in an area as small as one square kilometer, and start dropping down to the ground after hitting the torches and never rise up again. Some are killed by villagers while some die mysteriously either immediately or due to starvation after a few days. What causes the birds to become immobile and results in tonic contraction of their muscles inhibiting any form of movements, baffles scientists to this date. Several explanations have been provided to explain this phenomenon but none had been proved so far. For example, one theory suggests that a combination of high altitude, foggy weather and winds disorient the birds who then start flying towards light sources as if drawn to their death. Another theory suggests that the unusual weather conditions in Jatinga create some kind of a change in the underwater magnetic qualities, causing the birds to act crazy.
Currently, scientists are attempting to further delve into the subject of bird deaths in Jatinga, trying to understand the role of man and nature in triggering the processes and the physiology of the birds during such suicidal sprees. Conservationists are also trying to educate the largely illiterate villagers of Jatinga about the need to conserve birds instead of killing them, discouraging them to kill the birds and set up lighting to attract them. Only the coming years will reveal whether Jatinga’s bird suicides are completely explainable by science, or if it remains instead a phenomenon with deadly complications yet no clear answer.