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What Is The Mystery Behind The Mass Suicide Of Migratory Birds In Assam Every Year?

Assam is well-known for its historical reputation all over the world — be it the Ahom dynasty who defeated Mughals 17 times, or the one horned rhinoceros, or of course, our very honourable Kamrup Kamakhya temple among others. There are many more mystical and fictitious tales about Assam. Jatinga is one of the places where mysteries and unsolved events used to occur every year in the late monsoon season.

Many migratory birds in Assam including tiger bittern, little egret, black bittern, pond heron, Indian pitta and kingfishers are affected by the mysterious phenomenon at Jatinga. Species of birds including black drone, hill partridge, green pigeon, emerald dove, and necklaced laughing thrush amongst others used to come to this place and mysteriously die by suicide in large numbers.

Dima Hasao district, 330 km south of Guwahati and nine kilometres from the Haflong town, inhabits a population of 25,000 people. The train ride to Jatinga is itself an adventure, as it is one of the scariest routes in the entire world. Jatinga is famous for the mystical suicide of migratory birds, which happens in the months of September to November every year from between 7pm and 10pm. For this phenomenon to occur, the air must be foggy, cloudy or misty.

Image credit: Twitter

But Why?

Now the question arises: why do the birds come every year, at the exact same time, only to die? This question has caught the eye of many ornithologists and conservationists. It is believed that the birds get bewildered by the late monsoon season in the midst of wind and intense fog.

According to the famous ornithologist Anwaruddin Choudhury, as analysed in his book The Birds of Assam, “the majority of birds are juvenile and local migrants are disturbed by the high-velocity winds at their roots.” In an article by The Sentinel, Choudhury says that when the disturbed birds fly towards the light as refugees, they are struck with bamboo poles, killed or injured.

The late naturalist E.P Gee brought this occurrence to global attention in the 1960s, when he drove to Jatinga with renowned ornithologists the late Salim Ali. The results analysed were within uncertain conditions at high altitudes and high-speed winds due to extensive fog quality at that time.

Many studies say that most birds die during the months of September to November because during this time, water bodies in Assam are flooded and the birds lose their natural habitat. Their nests get broken down, and so, it becomes mandatory for them to migrate to other places, and Jatinga falls on their migratory path.

Theories have also come up suggesting that a combination of high altitude, high winds and fog leads to disorientation among birds. As a mode of stabilisation then, they get attracted to the lights of nearby villages. Another theory suggests that the climate of the area leads to a “change in the magnetic qualities of the underground water”, causing the bewildered state of the birds.

One possible explanation of the mysterious suicide is usage of high power searchlights on the hilltops in the area, which in turn attracts the birds flying at that time. Birds plunge down towards the lights and get killed upon landing on bamboo poles. However, not all long-distance migratory birds are affected by this incident.

Many natives believe that evil spirits flying in the sky are responsible for bringing down the birds in that area. Busting these superstitions, it is said that the birds are wan by the lights of the nearby houses and floodlights of watchtowers during times when fog, drizzle and south-westerly winds come together on a moonless night.

This is how villagers of Jatinga get the opportunity to trap the birds and consume them for meals, as the arrival of birds is considered a “gift of Gods”. Now, ornithologists and conservationists have been working hard to educate the locals and have achieved significant success.

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