Myths About Birds Committing Suicide in Jatinga
Like Jatinga, Mizoram in India, and Malaysia and the Philippines also report similar phenomenon of suicidal birds falling from the skies each year.
‘Under the influence of a demonic force, a large number of birds go crazy and kill themselves by crashing into the walls and windows of houses, attacking inhabitants and scaring everyone around’. Similar scenes have been used in horror movies since time immemorial. Although effective in creating an atmosphere of menace, all of us know that there is no real reason to be afraid, because it is all made up. However, what if I told you that there is a place in India where such things happen for real?
The state of Assam in India, is known of its varied ethnic groups, languages, culture, petroleum resources, tea plantations, and much more. It is also a great place to see some very scenic and spectacular views, which it owes to the greenery resulting from generous rainfall. The village of Jatinga too is just as beautiful, as it is surrounded by mountains, and is home to an immense number of blue orchid plants, which make the village glow in the flowering season. But all this beauty is not what has brought this place international attention. Instead, it is a unique and natural occurrence, which has had researchers and ornithologists scratching their heads for years. Each year, after the rainy season ends, on foggy and moonless nights, flocks of birds descend on the village between 6 – 9 pm, hitting trees, houses, and other buildings, severely injuring themselves, usually leading to death. This ‘harakiri’ behavior has earned Jatinga the monikers of ‘Suicide Point’ or Valley of Death’.
Disoriented Sparrows in Jatinga
The original inhabitants of the Jatinga area were the tribe of Zeme Nagas, who set the foundation of the village in the early 1900s. However, they did not stay here for long. They noticed that birds were dropping dead, and not just over one home, but the entire village, and not just once or twice, but every day for 2 – 3 months a year. They assumed that a curse had been placed on their homes by three women who had earlier been burned alive on accusations of witchcraft and black magic. The Zemes were so frightened that they sold their land to the Jaintia tribe and abandoned the area in 1905.
The Jaintia people also soon noticed this phenomenon. However, instead of feeling afraid, they saw the birds as a delicious gift of food from the gods. So, whenever they saw the birds flying in, they would walk out with long bamboo sticks, striking and killing them. They would then pick up the birds off the ground and have a nice dinner, before going to bed. Word of the annual phenomenon of bird suicides in Jatinga, Assam, soon spread far and wide, and since then, people from around the globe come each year to experience this bizarre occurrence for themselves. However, the important question is, do these birds really commit suicide, and if they do, why so?
If one were to ask the natives about why such an event occurred, they would attribute it to supernatural forces. The most common explanation one gets is, that the entire village is victim to some supernatural evil, which although invisible to humans, is easily seen by animals and birds. Also, since the evil force is believed to be at its strongest between 6 – 10 pm, the life-force of the birds is sucked out during this period. What is funny, however, is that, despite these tales, the villagers still catch and eat these birds without hesitation.
One can say that these stories come from the fact that, the mystery factor is what brings in visitors to the village. If the locals were to admit that they were the ones killing the birds and eating them, the interest in Jatinga would die down drastically. If fact, the local government has started cashing in on this avian invasion. In the past few years, a ‘Jatinga Festival’ is held annually to promote tourism. Several cultural events and attractions are displayed during the day in this period. The villagers set up searchlights and traps in the evening, before the birds arrive for the main event after sundown.
A Bird is Attracted to the Searchlights at Jatinga
For a more rational explanation of this event, one would have to look towards ornithologists and researchers who have been studying this occurrence for years. Most of them believe that, the local atmosphere is responsible for the death of the birds. This can be deduced from the fact that, the suicides only happen when the climate is foggy and dark. It is theorized that, in these conditions, the birds get disoriented, and get attracted to the bright lights of the village. In their confused state of mind, some of them end up hitting trees and buildings, which injures or kills them, while several others are killed by the villagers.
It is also thought that, the changes in atmospheric conditions cause high-velocity winds, and also fluctuations in the magnetic properties of the land and water in the area. This is thought to psychologically affect the birds, resulting in their abnormal behavior. Technically, this behavior cannot be considered as suicide, as the birds are attracted towards the light, which deceives them into accepting the village as a place of safety.
Although the above theories make sense, the mystery of Jatinga has still not been conclusively solved. There are many questions that still have no concrete answers: It is very strange that most bird species which arrive at this village are not nocturnal, and yet they are flying around at a time when they should be fast asleep. The 44 species of birds, which include tiger bitterns, black bitterns, herons, sparrows, kingfishers, etc., are not known to show such behavior anywhere else in the world. Also, all these species are local. There are no migratory species involved in this event, despite their presence in the surrounding forests. All the birds fly into the village only from the north, and land only in a small 1.5 km-long and 200 meter-wide strip of land. Efforts to attract the birds to other areas by setting up lights elsewhere have failed. Another unanswered question is, why do the birds arrive only in the 3-hour time slot, and why only after the monsoons. When they reach the village, they are always in a disoriented and disheveled state, and never show any kind of resistance when attacked by the villagers. What causes this effect, is not known. The foggy conditions take place in other areas as well, and yet surprisingly, birds are attracted only to Jatinga. Wildlife officials have made a lot of efforts to educate the natives and curb the wanton killing of the birds in Jatinga. It has been estimated that, this work has brought down the death rate by almost 40%. As you can see, this is one phenomenon which still deserves deeper scientific studies from multiple viewpoints to get an exact understanding. However, it is not the only one. Various animals across the world have shown surprising suicidal tendencies, which hopefully will be understood completely in the near future.