At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly mysterious or significant about the village of Jatinga, India. Indeed the locale is beautiful, with lush forests and scenic mountain views, and Jatinga itself is a fairly small, rural town of about 2,500 people that is for the most part just the same as any other village in the area. Yet once a year, this rural hamlet becomes the setting of a bizarre mass death of birds that has for the most part gone largely unexplained.
The phenomenon occurs every year just after monsoon season in the months of September and October. During this time, just after sunset and typically on dark, moonless nights between the hours of 6:30 and 10 o’clock, flocks of birds representing numerous different species mysteriously congregate here in large numbers and plummet to their deaths. The birds circle spasmodically and violently crash into the ground, trees, and buildings, littering the ground with hundreds of smashed, broken bodies in a frenzy of flapping wings and death. Some of the dazed birds who survive crashing will get back up and promptly dash themselves against something again. Mostly the birds seem to fixate and hone in on light sources, such as house lights and torches, before crashing to their doom. Interestingly, the birds always come swooping in from the North, and only to a very well defined small strip of land that measures a mere 1.5 km (0.9 miles) long and 200 meters (656 feet) wide.
In total, around 44 species of bird, both migratory and local species, join in the mass death. In addition to the sheer amount of species joining in on the confusion and carnage, there is also the puzzling fact that many of the species present are known to be diurnal, meaning that they should not even be active at the times these deaths occur at. Puzzled scientists who have looked into the phenomenon have said that the incident is not really suicide in that it does not appear that the birds are doing this intentionally, but are rather disoriented due to factors that are still not totally understood.
The mass bird death of Jatinga was first observed in the early 1900s by the Zeme Nagas, a tribe native to the area. The tribe was badly frightened by the phenomenon, and believing it to be the work of angry gods, sold their land in 1905. Many villagers since then have often blamed evil spirits for plucking the birds from the sky and hurling them to their deaths. Many of the villagers believed that the birds themselves were the evil spirits, and took to hunting the birds down to mercilessly beat them to death with bamboo poles. Evil spirits or not, it probably doesn’t hurt that many of the species that die are considered to be local delicacies. To this day the disoriented birds that do not immediately die or get up to smack into something again are actively slaughtered by stick wielding villagers. Many villagers even set up bright lights in an effort to lure the birds in so they can be captured and eaten.
For years the mass bird deaths at Jatinga have baffled both villagers and ornithologists alike, and a variety of theories have been put forth in an effort to try and figure out what is going on here. One idea is that monsoon fog, combined with high altitudes and strong winds, disorients the birds and leads them to hone in on light sources in an effort to stabilize their flight, causing them to crash into various obstacles in the process. Another theory is that weather changes during the season are having some effect on the magnetic fields of the area, making the birds’ instinctive navigational abilities go haywire. In addition, at least for the migratory species represented among the dead, it has been shown that these birds often lose their habitats due to monsoon flooding and then make a mad beeline past Jatinga in their efforts to escape.
These are all perfectly rational and valid theories, but many mysteries remain. For instance, it is not really known why so many species, including non-migratory local ones, amass here simultaneously at that particular time of day and at that particular time of year. No one really knows why the birds should so maniacally focus on lights the way they do to such a deadly extent during the event either. It is also a mystery as to why the birds only ever descend upon the same small strip of land, and nowhere else, every single time. Lights placed in areas outside of this delineated zone of death have failed to attract the birds, even at the height of the phenomenon. In addition, ornithologists are puzzled as to why diurnal birds should suddenly appear here at night to join in the mass killing. The eminent Indian ornithologist, the late Salim Ali, once said:
The most puzzling thing to me about this phenomenon is that so many species of diurnal resident birds should be on the move when, by definition, they should be fast asleep. The problem deserves a deeper scientific study from various angles
The mass bird deaths do have some positive effects. The influx of wildlife enthusiasts, ornithologists, and just plain curious visitors coming to witness the phenomenon for themselves during the monsoon season has been great for tourism in the area. In 2010, the village even started a festival to coincide with the bird deaths called the Jatinga Festival, and there have been various hotel projects undertaken in the area to cater to the guests. The villagers themselves are also always eager to get some fresh, delicious birds for dinner.
What lies at the heart of this mystery? If anyone is so inclined to visit and see for themselves, be warned that the nearest airport is 350 km away from the village, after which one must undergo a perilous, albeit gorgeous, trek through dense jungles and hills via unkept roads and rickety bridges that are sometimes over a century old. For many willing to make the journey, it is worth it to gaze upon and ponder this macabre modern mystery.