They say, “We know less about our Planet than we know about the Universe”. Often on Earth, places exist where nature works in bizarre ways; delivering us some of the most inexplicable mysteries. And even after years of studying them; some of the best minds, fail to make sense of these phenomena. Walking around the lone hill station of Assam; I chanced upon one such mystery in the form of a serene little village near Haflong.
Tales in the Lobby
What crosses your mind when you think about birds? Probably, a little-winged creature camouflaged in the bushes or trees; cooing as the dawn breaks. Or that flock of birds that disappear into the evening sky; retiring after a hard day. Be what it may, the image in our head is far from anything grim. Picture the startled look on my face; as the Inn Keeper (just to make guest house owner sound dramatic; it’s such a brilliant word ‘Inn’ wonder why it isn’t widely used anymore) narrates his tale about the “Suicidal Birds of Jatinga”.
Our breath grew cold at the mention of that word. Who would imagine birds to be suicidal? We can’t because birds aren’t known to be suicidal, not remotely. And yet, here we were hearing about the unimaginable happenings of this place. A faint ray of moonlight made its way through the window to my left, into the dimly lit room. My attention drifted to this window, which framed the abundant hills as they bathed in moonlight. The clock ticked on, and so did his tale – “It’s one of those nights, those eerie moonless ones with thick fog; that’s when they descend from the heavens. And it’s always during the late monsoon months that they head towards the northern lights only to be found dead the next morning. ”
Inquisitive as I was; we proceeded towards the ‘village in question’ the very next day to uncover more and hopefully get to the bottom of this. But, what we encountered was painting a whole different picture. At first glance, Jatinga looked like just about any village in Assam – simple and pretty; tucked away in the mountains. Who could tell such horrid history was concealed by the façade of a serene little village. We proceeded to talk to the residents (I like to call it “the domestic approach”), to see if they’d have some answers to the numerous questions that I found baffling.
After an eventful day, I could finally jot down some verifiable facts about this place and its world-famous conundrum. So, turns out this phenomenon occurs exclusively on this specific stretch in the village; 1500*200 meters to be precise. And as the inn keeper’s tale suggested- It is during the months of September to November; only when the nights are moonless and the fog is thick. The wind direction plays an important part as well; it needs to be flowing from south to north. They turn up out of nowhere from the north and head towards the light sources situated in the north of town (They’ve tried putting lights to the south but they fail to receive any attention from the birds). And the most astonishing detail? It happens from 6-10 pm; when the skies are dark and these birds are supposed to be fast asleep.
It’s sad that this incident has been incorrectly termed as suicide, when in fact it’s the mass slaughter of these poor birds. What boggled my mind further was the fact that these birds don’t resist or fight back; even while they are being butchered.
Back when this event was first witnessed; over a century ago, the village of Jatinga was occupied mainly by the Naga tribe. A man frantically looking for a lost buffalo with a torch; stumbled upon these dazed birds attracted to the flame. And soon enough, flocks of disoriented birds started falling from the sky at the same spot. The Nagas believed them to be spectres disguised as birds – descending to terrorise them and fled the region after selling the land to the Khasi people. But what was considered bad omen by the Nagas; the Khasi interpreted it to be a gift of gods after observing the spectacle. Armed with sickles, poles and catapults they went hunting for these dazed birds; which ended up as a delicacy in their dinner plates. And hence, the annual slaughter started; with thousands of birds killed every single year. (Talk about gruesome!)
Now, one may wonder what the cause of this erratic behaviour – displayed by these winged creatures might be. A sizable amount of the habitat of these water birds is flooded during monsoons. As the village is en route their migratory path; these locally migrating birds somehow get caught up in the village and fall victim. There have also been reports about the change in magnetic properties of the groundwater during this time of the year; which may contribute to attracting the birds to this part of the village. And high-speed winds; fog, mist, clouds and drizzle have generally been shown to disorientate birds at high altitudes; who try to fly towards the lights for refuge and in the process – get injured or killed.
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Yet, even after years of research into this by some of the famed ornithologists – a proper conclusion has failed to surface. Why north? Why during the night? Why only juveniles and local migrants? I guess, these are some of the many questions which will keep haunting us for days to come.
As they say, the myth might be busted but the mystery continues…
Practical Information: Jatinga is a village situated 9km from Haflong town. It is about 330km south of Guwahati. Accommodation can be provided in the Bird Watching Centre after prior notice from the district forestry office in Haflong. You could also stay in Haflong and have a little trip from there. There are buses plying from Silchar to Haflong which have stops in Jatinga. A meter-gauge train also runs till Haflong.